CHICAGO -- The future of food retailing is all about thinking in new ways about new technologies, a cultural anthropologist told a seminar at the Food Marketing Institute's annual convention here earlier this month.
Too often industry executives over the age of 50 are thinking not about the future of their businesses, but about retirement, said Jennifer James, Seattle, Wash.-based author, former newspaper columnist and business lecturer. James dubbed that phenomenon the "world astronomer syndrome."
"If you find yourself saying things are not as good as they used to be, that means you've lost perspective," James said.
James is the author of seven books that focus on cultural shifts, and the behavior changes necessary for leaders to survive in a changing world, including "Thinking in the Future Tense" (Simon & Schuster, 1996). For 17 years she wrote a column for the Seattle Times and for a dozen years was professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington Medical School.
James told her audience she gained insights into the food business indirectly -- as the wife of a seafood industry executive whose business takes them around the world.
James encouraged her audience to make an effort to win over the Internet generation -- the same young people retailers are wooing as prospective employees and consumers. Technology attracts young people, she said, noting that the phenomenal growth of technology has redefined what it means to be intelligent.
Keeping abreast of technology and using the latest gadgets in the stores can help retailers attract good workers -- and young, technologically sophisticated consumers, she said.
"Our approach to food information [technology] doesn't have to be caught in the '50s," she said. In stores, "you're not going to have people running around looking for papers. You'll have a computer kiosk at the end of each aisle."
Along with state-of-the-art technology, young workers want the workplace to be fun -- not controlled by what they consider to be "silly rules," she said. "They want to be led and coached but not managed."
Because selling merchandise requires storytelling, food executives must hone a set of ideas that fit the marketplace. Those ideas must "resonate to the deeply held values" of consumers, James said.
When companies fail to understand those values, they pay dearly, she added, pointing to tobacco as an example of an industry that didn't recognize mounting concerns about health.
Also, the storyteller must be credible. "If you're just waiting for retirement, everyone around you will feel it," she said.
To understand the younger generation, executives should get familiar with pop culture.
"Who's the executive in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?" she asked. "Learn to play Pokemon. It teaches everything you'll need to keep a business together in this new world."