SHOULD FOOD RETAILERS CATCH THE BUZZ?

Food as fashion. The correlation may seem somewhat of a stretch, especially to food retailers focused on logistics.The food-fashion connection was made for me on a run for a Starbucks fix. Note the java retailer turned coffee into a fashion item. Poster-sized magazine covers of Fairchild's titles, including SN, adorn our cafeteria walls. Fairchild is the parent company of SN and is well known for

Food as fashion. The correlation may seem somewhat of a stretch, especially to food retailers focused on logistics.

The food-fashion connection was made for me on a run for a Starbucks fix. Note the java retailer turned coffee into a fashion item. Poster-sized magazine covers of Fairchild's titles, including SN, adorn our cafeteria walls. Fairchild is the parent company of SN and is well known for its fashion pubs -- Women's Wear Daily and W, among others. There, amid today's fashion denizens and hot styles, the question arises: Is food a fashion item? Should food retailers treat it as such or even get into the business?

From Chiquita banana headwear to Nicole Miller neckwear, foods have been used in fashion design. And this month, as part of its Father's Day motif, Lord & Taylor's Fifth Avenue windows displayed paintings of urban street scenes by American artist Richard Estes. One window contained a painting of shoppers mulling about the colorful veggies at a Fairway Market, a popular New York fresh-food retailer. In another display, Estes' subject matter was a fish store window with eye-appealing salmon steaks on ice. Male mannequins casually dressed in the latest street attire became part of the scene as food was used to make a fashion statement.

This week the food/fashion topic will be addressed during a presentation at CIES' World Food Business Summit 2001 in Prague. Participating in the discussion will be Luc Vandevelde, chairman and CEO of England's well-known clothing and food retailer Marks & Spencer. It appears that on the other side of the pond the link between fashion and food is being examined from every angle.

In recent times the spark has faded out of fashion for M&S while food has become an important staple. Likewise, other food retailers in Great Britain have gotten into the fashion business by launching their own clothing lines. Asda introduced George and this year added Essentially George, a lower-priced clothing line. The label's designer, George Davies, left Asda recently to help revive fashion at M&S. Meanwhile, Tesco has relaunched its Fred and Florence labels at lower prices to appeal to the middle market. And designer Jeff Banks is partnering with Sainsbury to design six collections a year targeted to a more affluent customer, according to Reuters.

While this fashion trend has not crossed the pond yet, given all the channel blurring, consolidations and turf fighting for market share, it's not out of the realm of possibility. Things may be shifting in fashion retailing as well. Take trendy Zara, which has turned fashion into a hot commodity by recognizing what grocery retailers have known for some time: Speed to market is critical. Zara has changed the old spring and fall fashion cycle into biweekly events, delivering the hottest looks. "Fashion expires, much the same way yogurt does," said Maria Castellano, the CEO of Zara's Spanish parent Inditex.

Savvy food retailers should not let their approach to food retailing get stale. They don't need to get into the clothing business either. They simply need to merchandise and promote food as fashion much like the great chefs do by blending tastes, textures, color and design in food styling. Fairway Markets is plugged into this. The retailer knows what towering displays of colorful vegetables and fruits mean to impulse shoppers.