RESTON, Va. -- For food retailers, one of the hottest convention topics has been Efficient Consumer Response.Now, as the National Grocers Association here enters its 16th year of operation, the group is practicing "Efficient Association Response" for its 1998 conferences and educational programming.Thomas K. Zaucha, the NGA's president and chief executive officer, told SN that busy schedules and tight

RESTON, Va. -- For food retailers, one of the hottest convention topics has been Efficient Consumer Response.

Now, as the National Grocers Association here enters its 16th year of operation, the group is practicing "Efficient Association Response" for its 1998 conferences and educational programming.

Thomas K. Zaucha, the NGA's president and chief executive officer, told SN that busy schedules and tight budgets mandate that conferences be time effective and cost effective, addressing only issues that are critical to NGA membership, and which do not overlap other associations' agendas.

"Everything is niche marketing," Zaucha said in a recent phone interview. "If you look at our exhibitions, we certainly don't pretend to be, nor ever will be, the size and magnitude of an FMI show. But in terms of identifying some very timely pavilions, whether it be home-meal replacement, or technology, or perimeter departments, it's a way for an independent or regional chain operator to be able to very effectively get the best of what's available. It's a very shopable environment."

Zaucha said the difference between NGA's conferences and larger conferences, such as FMI's annual convention, "is like the difference between shopping in a conventional supermarket and shopping in a club or megastore."

"If you offer a service that has value, if you market it effectively and if you price it effectively, then the industry perceives the value and you'll be successful," Zaucha said. The NGA's largest event is its annual convention and exposition, dubbed "America's Supermarket Showcase '98," to be held Feb. 9 to 12 in Las Vegas.

The show is expected to be the NGA's best-attended ever, Zaucha said, because its expanded format contains two conferences within the convention: the Human Resources Conference, and the NGA/FDI Joint Marketing Conference, which includes the annual Creative Choice Awards for Excellence in Supermarket Advertising and Merchandising.

"We've eliminated a duplication of content in the conference, and both [NGA and FDI] should benefit from that," Zaucha said.

For the first time ever, Zaucha said, NGA will hold a summit of independent operators from across North America at the convention.

"We feel there are some very significant challenges -- as well as opportunities -- for independent operators," Zaucha said. "And they should be addressed in a formal, thoughtful and strategic fashion. They will sit down as independents and talk through and establish an agenda for growth for the 21st century."

The exhibit floor will include "Brand Central Station," a new pavilion devoted to demonstrations and exhibits by some of the country's largest brand marketers. In all, the floor will house 350 exhibits.

In terms of programming, the convention will offer more than 40 workshops and idea-exchange sessions in six tracks that cover a variety of topics, including store design and development, meal solutions, human resources, marketing, operations and technology. Other conferences throughout the year include the Food Industry Public Affairs Assembly, March 16 and 17 in Washington, which is cosponsored by FDI and FMI; the GMDC Health and Beauty Conference, May 29 to June 3 in Scottsdale, Ariz.; Supermarket College, June 14 to 17 in Atlantic City, N.J.; the Regulatory Compliance Conference, July 19 to 22 in Washington; the GMDC General Merchandise Conference, Sept. 11 to 16 in Orlando, Fla., and a Retail-Owned Executive Retreat and Industry and Trade Relations Conference, Oct. 14 to 17, in a location to be determined.

However, in its effort to educate its members, the NGA is also bringing the conferences to the audiences through its Regional On-Demand Seminar Program.

In this initiative, NGA speakers and other experts will travel to the site of a wholesaler, or a regional or state association, to discuss various issues, such as employment law, electronic marketing, human resource management, operations management, health and safety, food safety, succession planning, estate tax planning, technology, category management and HMR.

The NGA plans to conduct two such seminars per month in 1998, and possibly more depending on demand.

"It is more and more challenging these days to get people on airplanes and send them across the country for conferences and seminars," Zaucha said. "Our objective is to make education services and information more accessible and more economical and to utilize as much of the expertise that is already available in the industry."

"The ability for us to take the experts to the region, as opposed to putting people on planes, is a lot more time efficient and certainly a lot more cost efficient," he added.

As with its advocacy activities and member services, all NGA educational programming must pass a two-part "litmus test" in order to make it onto the calendar: Will it help increase sales for the independent sector; and will it help control unnecessary operating costs? "Our objective is to grow market share," Zaucha said.

However, in order to accomplish that, the NGA finds itself in the position of countering industry beliefs that the independent sector's market share has been extremely eroded by chains, supercenters and other forms of competition.

"The market share for the independent sector has been arbitrarily understated, because [the industry] has been following a rule of thumb that says if you have 10 stores or less, you're an independent, but if you have more, you're a chain," Zaucha said. "This has unfairly understated the market share earned by the independent."

Zaucha said this misperception has also damaged wholesalers' stock values, as well as cooperatives and regional voluntary companies, whose importance has been reduced in the eyes of manufacturers. "We have to revisit and rekindle a much clearer understanding and appreciation for the size and magnitude of the independent operator," he said. "I think we need a more realistic and more contemporary definition of what constitutes the independent sector in the food industry today."

Zaucha said NGA defines an independent operator as a company that is privately owned and is serviced by a wholesale distributor.

Under the traditional 10-or-less definition, such privately held companies as Gooding's, Dierbergs and Harmons would be considered chains, Zaucha said. However, those companies, -- all NGA members -- are privately held and wholesaler-supplied, and consider themselves to be independents, especially compared with their massive competitors.

"We hear about ECR and category management, and we hear that there's not a lot of follow-through in the independent sector," Zaucha said. "But we hear in the same breath that the independent is in the best position to make full use of tools like category management because of their flexibility, their understanding of the market and their understanding of their consumers."

On Wednesday, Feb. 11, Zaucha will deliver one of five keynote presentations at the NGA annual convention, "A Declaration of Independents: Succeeding in the Next Millennium," which he calls "a testament to the entrepreneurial spirit of the independent segment of the supermarket industry."

That session, based on NGA research and illustrated by a panel of supermarket operators, will serve as "a blueprint for the growth and prosperity of independents in the next century," Zaucha said.

The conference features four other keynote presentations.