RETAILERS SEEK AN EDGE AT FMI

CHICAGO -- Retailers face an increasingly difficult battle to win over an evolving customer base and to compete against fast-growing alternative formats, attendees were told at the Food marketing Institute Conference here last week."You have to be distinctive, and you have to have a niche" to compete in today's marketplace, said Jeff Noddle, the newly elected chairman of FMI in an address at the show's

CHICAGO -- Retailers face an increasingly difficult battle to win over an evolving customer base and to compete against fast-growing alternative formats, attendees were told at the Food marketing Institute Conference here last week.

"You have to be distinctive, and you have to have a niche" to compete in today's marketplace, said Jeff Noddle, the newly elected chairman of FMI in an address at the show's opening session. "You have to be true to your niche."

Noddle, who also is chairman and chief executive officer at Supervalu, Minneapolis, said one of the things he plans to focus on during his two-year tenure as chairman is trying to make FMI "more anticipatory" of emerging trends to help retailers successfully adapt.

"We need to focus on not just what's important today, but what's going to be important five years from now," he said.

Other issues he said he planned to emphasize during his tenure are collaboration within the industry and efforts to make the supply chain more efficient.

"We need to wring out those efficiencies," he said, citing such areas as backhaul costs.

Liz Minyard, the outgoing chair of FMI and the former co-chair of Minyard Food Stores, Coppell, Texas, said the format of this year's FMI Show -- which combined five different trade shows -- was reflective of changes in the industry.

"Our stores don't look the same, and our show should reflect that," she said.

Karen Brown, senior vice president, FMI, told SN the association is "very pleased with the way the show proceeded. It was a great show. Retailers seemed to be very pleased with the new format," which dispersed the large exhibitors around the hall.

"People have told us for a long time that the show looked the same year to year. We didn't think so, but then we realized that if the same large exhibitors were always located up front, it might give that impression."

Final attendance numbers won't be available until this week, but Brown said FMI estimated that the five shows drew more than 32,000, which would exceed last year's attendance. She said FMI also expects to exceed last year's FMI attendance, which was about 23,500.

One thing that was missing at this year's show was the banquet, which Brown said was eliminated because of declining attendance and high costs.

"We eliminated it based on people voting with their feet," she said. "We are open to bringing the banquet back in future years, based on whether retailers see value in it and want it back, but so far there has been no hue and cry to bring it back."

Attendees seemed to enjoy the combination of trade shows, which for the second year in a row included All Things Organic, the Fancy Food Show, the United Produce Expo & Conference and the U.S. Food Export Showcase. Several retail executives interviewed by SN in the exhibit halls said they appreciated the ability to shop the All Things Organic show floor specifically, and others said they appreciated the overall industry perspective that the combined shows offered.

"We're looking for help to better aid Pathmark in differentiating ourselves to consumers in terms of meal solutions, natural and organic products, and fresh foods, and to learn some of the unique things that are happening in those areas," said Eileen Scott, CEO of Pathmark Stores, Carteret, N.J. "We like the idea of combining shows rather than having a series of smaller shows because some of those smaller shows might become non-existent, and combining them here is the best of all worlds for retailers."

Ric Jurgens, president and CEO, Hy-Vee Stores, Des Moines, Iowa, said the show provides a good opportunity for interaction with other industry members. "We've found we can learn a great deal not only at convention seminars but also meeting with other supplier and retail leaders in the hallways," he said.

"Obviously, we're interested in all issues relating to health and also to innovative products and services to offer customers," he added. "Over the last five years we've been expanding our natural and organic offerings, and we will look for as many new items as we can find in that area in foods and nonfoods. Therefore, having the organics show here is beneficial for us. We probably have 80 or 90 Hy-Vee people here, and many will spend time in that area of the show."

Al Plamann, president and CEO, Unified Western Grocers, Los Angeles, said he often hears things here from suppliers "that don't come up in business review sessions."

Regarding the new show format, Plamann said, "The exciting thing about the FMI Show is combining, in one place, traditional manufacturers with companies from the fancy foods and organic industries, which represent the newest industry trends. I'm hopeful FMI can bring MarkeTechnics to this show so CEOs can see what their IS departments see. Very often, the IS people get new ideas, and we don't get involved until a decision has to be made."

Steve Smith, president and CEO, K-VA-T Food Stores, Abingdon, Va., said he appreciates having other shows, including All Things Organic, under one roof because it exposes his company to more of the industry.

"By having them all together, we'll take the time to visit with them," he said. "Otherwise, we might not have even noticed them."

Brian Numainville, director of research, Nash Finch, Minneapolis, said he felt the educational sessions were informative and noted that his company's retail customers expressed appreciation of having multiple shows under one roof.

"A lot of our retailers said they liked getting all their information in one place to learn about different aspects of the industry," he said.

Ron Calton, vice president, operations, RPCS Inc., Springfield, Mo., said he came to FMI to look at the newest innovations in technology. He said one of the technologies he learned about at the convention was e-wallets, which allow loyalty programs without the use of cards. "That's something we plan to pursue further. We also came to look at self-checkouts, and we've talked with some of the vendors here about the costs of installation."

He also said he was looking at natural and organic products, as well as international offerings, "so we can offer things the big boxes don't."

Ken Lansing, general manager of Martins IGA, Effingham, Ill., said he came to the show to look at equipment, primarily for the fuel centers his company plans to install at one of its four stores in July. "We brought several contracts with us to the show, and we've already had them signed by the companies we plan to do business with."

Dan Gradijan, manager, Zagara's Marketplace, Cleveland Heights, Ohio, said he was focused on prepared foods and specialty offerings at the Fancy Food Show. "Our store already has a reputation for being cool but we're looking to add a little more Disneyland."

Frank Pasdon, owner and president of Jim Thorpe Market, a one-store operator in Jim Thorpe, Pa., said he came to the show "looking for a way to educate my customers about food. Some people are eating so much better today, while others are not. But we all have the ability to eat so much better, with products like strawberries and melons available every day of the year -- that's something we never had before in Pennsylvania. I believe we can grow our business by making customers more aware of what's out there. But I'm not finding what I'm looking for -- an easy way to help me to get that message across. What I'm here looking for is hardware -- books, visual aids -- but I'm not finding that."