INDUSTRY URGED TO TIE INTO CONSUMERS

NEW YORK -- Spending a lot of time and resources trying to get a handle on consumer trends? You shouldn't have to, according to two industry speakers at the First Annual Consumer Trend Forum hosted by WOR radio here. "This is not rocket science," said Phil Lempert, a syndicated columnist and host of WOR's "Shopping Smart" show.The forum, which concentrated on shifting demographics and lifestyle changes,

NEW YORK -- Spending a lot of time and resources trying to get a handle on consumer trends? You shouldn't have to, according to two industry speakers at the First Annual Consumer Trend Forum hosted by WOR radio here. "This is not rocket science," said Phil Lempert, a syndicated columnist and host of WOR's "Shopping Smart" show.

The forum, which concentrated on shifting demographics and lifestyle changes, also featured Michael Sansolo, senior vice president of the Food Marketing Institute.

The key, Lempert said, is "understanding what the consumer wants without bias" because, he chided the roomful of retailers, "you think a certain way about consumers." That, he said, results in a regrettable pattern of "not giving consumers what they want."

Sansolo agreed, asking, "If you don't know them, how can you explain to your customers how you can better serve them?" The message retailers should be communicating, he said, is "we care about you as an individual."

Both speakers offered tips to put retailers on the path of more customer-friendly service:

Simplify the presentation. As Sansolo put it, "Talk to them in a way they can understand." As an example, he lampooned the use of the word "analgesic" on aisle signs. "Why not just say 'headache remedies'? " he asked. In that same area, he advocated a trend in some supermarkets to group compatible items together, such as "a cold case with milk in the cereal aisle," to help divert customers from "a scavenger hunt."

Think like a category killer. Using the coffee bar boom as an example, Sansolo urged retailers to anticipate "where the next thing is coming from" and learn "how to be the category killer for food."

Evolve with consumers. For instance, Lempert said, American adults are rediscovering "love and romance. We're going to continue to see this happen." Thus, convenient takeout meals that would enable shoppers to easily create "candle-lit dinners" are desirable.

Pay attention to popular culture. Among the many demographics cited by both speakers is the 72 million-strong coming-of-age group that follows the mysterious Generation X. At a time when many retail executives would guess that Fiona Apple is "a new piece of computer software" and not a Grammy-winning pop singer, "be frightened," Sansolo warned. Before long, this group "will be consumers."

Personalize. That includes having the savvy to recognize subgroups that may exist in a particular demographic. For example, it would be a mistake, Sansolo said, to group all Hispanics together; recognize that shoppers with a cultural tie to Puerto Rico may have different wants and needs from shoppers who trace their heritage to the Dominican Republic or El Salvador. He said customer data should be used to tailor messages to individuals. "Wouldn't it be great to get a message, 'We notice you like Indian food -- here's some recipes you may want to try'?"

Both speakers stressed the need to continuously seek ways to enhance "the shopping experience." Lempert mentioned customer service and held up the Coca-Cola Co. as a leader in that area. "Call their 800 number sometime and tell them you have a can of Coke that's flat and see what customer service is all about," he suggested.

Above all, the two hammered away at a question they believe retailers should always be asking themselves about their customers: "What do they need," Lempert asked, "to make them happy?"