OPTIMISM

It's not certain that an event as big and sprawling as the Food Marketing Institute's convention in Chicago last week could have an actual theme, but if one did emerge, maybe it was the theme of optimism. The feeling of optimism at the convention wasn't of a type that asserted completely happy days are here again. Instead, it seemed that a mood of cautious but palpable optimism about future business

It's not certain that an event as big and sprawling as the Food Marketing Institute's convention in Chicago last week could have an actual theme, but if one did emerge, maybe it was the theme of optimism. The feeling of optimism at the convention wasn't of a type that asserted completely happy days are here again. Instead, it seemed that a mood of cautious but palpable optimism about future business conditions was in the air. Tim Hammonds, presiding over his first FMI Chicago convention as president and chief executive officer, might have done something to set the tone of the convention by mentioning the notion of optimism early. Indeed, the idea of industry optimism won early mention during the convention's flagship meeting called "The State of the Food Marketing Industry: Speaks '94." The Speaks report usually draws hundreds to McCormick Place's huge Arie Crown Theater, and this year was no exception. "Perhaps the biggest change in our industry is the improvement in feelings toward the future," Tim told the convention. "Members all over the country -- with the exception of California -- see signs of an upturn, and they see customers more open with their pocketbooks."

A detailed report on the substance of the Speaks report starts on Page 1 of this issue, continuing to several more pages inside.

During the Speaks talk, Tim went on to mention that the rising industry mood probably has something to do with the fact that the industry has figured out how to deal with challenges presented by alternate-format operators, particularly membership-club operators. The validity of that outlook has been increasingly evident for several months now -- ever since clubs reached market saturation and declining same-club sales numbers set in. As important as that fact is that conventional operators have learned to fight back with an offer of club-like products and other strategies.

More specific findings detailed in the research behind Speaks also show that there's a little room for optimism: Current dollar sales for the industry were up 3.3% (up 0.8% in real dollars), same-store sales were up 1.9% in current dollars (but off 0.5% in real dollars) while the sale-per-transaction figure weighed in at $18.11 for 1993 against $17.90 the previous year. As for the mood at last week's convention itself, it seemed all right too.

Many exhibitors and attendees told me that floor traffic and activity were strong, especially as the show went on. Many thought Sunday was a little slow, but many also thought Monday was one of the busiest days in recent memory of FMI shows.

Early reckoning was that total show attendance could top the usual figure of 35,000 that have attended recent shows, driven up a little by a good number of walk-in registrants.

As for exhibit space, it seemed slightly down, although in the context of 1.3 million square feet, what's the difference? The number of exhibitors held at about 1,300, as expected. So all in all, it was a pretty good show, even if it might take a little while to recover from the wear and tear it exacts. Speaking of which, now it's off to the cobbler for new heels on the show shoes.