GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Spartan Stores  sure knows how to put on a show. The retailer and grocery distributor here recently hosted its Fresh Experience 2010 merchandising show, bringing together its retail customers and its perishables suppliers for a two-day product expo. In just its second year, the event quadrupled in size, from 40,000 square feet to 160,000 square feet, and drew more than 1,400 attendees and 235 vendors, up from 156 in 2009.
The Fresh Experience show replaced a series of smaller shows focused on categories such as meat, deli and bakery, according to Alan Hartline, executive vice president of merchandising and marketing. The result has been a boost in attendance and a change in the shows' overall dynamic. For example, the smaller shows primarily drew attendees in middle management roles at their respective companies. Now, those attendees are still coming, but so are independent owners and other top executives.
“The show exceeded expectations,” Hartline told SN. “One of the big wins for us is that we brought it all together and made [the new show] a big deal. It becomes a different conversation in terms of strategies. … It's brought on a lot more senior managers and owners of companies, presidents of companies as well as produce merchandisers, deli merchandisers and whatnot. So, it's been a broader group, and a much different perspective.”
The event kicked off with the Spartan Appreciation Day Dinner, where attendees listened to a motivational speech from college football coaching legend Lou Holtz. On the show floor at DeVos Place in Grand Rapids, retailers were treated to 100 temporary “hot deals” on products, available exclusively to Fresh Experience attendees. Eight of the top pastry chefs from Spartan and their independents participated in a cake-decorating contest. And, Spartan used the show as an opportunity to introduce its new Fresh Selections private label.
“We fashion ourselves as a value-added distributor, and what the show ultimately does is bring together nearly 250 vendors with over 400 retail outlets across three states,” Hartline said. “It's very efficient and effective in bringing together the latest and greatest new innovations and products. We launched our Fresh Selections private-label brand at the show as well. It was a great platform for our customers to see an expansion of the Spartan brand and what it means to them and more importantly the consumer.”
Currently, the new brand includes items such as fresh chicken, mushrooms and bagged potatoes, and there are “a multitude of items in the pipeline,” Hartline said. By the end of the year, shoppers can expect to see more than 200 new items under the Fresh Selections brand.
The event also offered Spartan a chance to bring together small, Michigan-based vendors with many of the state's independent grocers. The company launched its “Michigan's Best: Supporting Our State, Our Farmers, Our Neighbors, Our Families” campaign in July 2009, and the program, which highlights products grown, raised or produced in the state, received immediate accolades. The National Grocer's Association awarded the program its Best Advertising Campaign last year. Since then, it has grown to include 3,000 products sold in Spartan stores.
“That's been a focus for us as an organization,” Hartline said. “As a result, a lot of different manufacturers and growers came to us seeking to understand how they develop a relationship with Spartan. We've added a number of new suppliers, and they were on board at the show and were recognized as Michigan-based companies. For those vendors — who were ecstatic about the show — to get that type of visibility and interaction in a very efficient way … they appreciated that. We've got [retail] customers all across Michigan … and a lot of them are one-store operators. It would be incredibly inefficient for many of these vendors to try to meet all of them on an individual basis.”
Hartline singled out one Michigan vendor in particular who made a splash at the show. Henrietta Hills, a Michigan aquaculture and pond-supply company that sells freshwater fish to Spartan seafood departments, constructed a trout pond on the expo floor.
“We talk about freshness of product and locally grown. The product that we actually get … is processed and is fresh to our stores within 24 hours.”
Fresh Experience 2010 raised the bar for next year, Hartline said, and he expects the event to continue to offer new opportunities for Spartan Stores as well as its vendor partners and retail customers in the future.
“There's a partnership between us, the vendor and the retailer, and the show sets a platform for building those relationships,” he said.