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MADISON, Wis. -- Supermarket operators may be backing away from home-meal replacement, but that doesn't mean they've stopped selling meals.And the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association here is looking to help them sell even more of them and basketsful of groceries too, said Carol Christison, the IDDBA's executive director.In just two weeks, at Dairy-Deli-Bake '99, the IDDBA's convention, which

MADISON, Wis. -- Supermarket operators may be backing away from home-meal replacement, but that doesn't mean they've stopped selling meals.

And the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association here is looking to help them sell even more of them and basketsful of groceries too, said Carol Christison, the IDDBA's executive director.

In just two weeks, at Dairy-Deli-Bake '99, the IDDBA's convention, which will be held this year in New Orleans, attendees can visit the Show & Sell Center to get fresh ideas on how to best feed today's busy consumer and make money doing it, Christison said. The Show & Sell Center is the new incarnation of the ShowPlace merchandising theater that has been popular with retailers at previous IDDBA shows. (See "Industry Expo to Feature ShowPlace With Regional Themes," SN, April 19, 1999.)

"We're really promoting the idea of 'selling the whole store.' Our objective should be to fill the basket as well as the stomach. When we focus on just a single eating occasion, we leave money and opportunity on the table," Christison said in an interview with SN.

"Our job is to sell food, to sell meals, to sell ingredients. And to do it with the consumer in mind," Christison said, adding that too many retailers plunged into the meals business without much thought about how the consumer shops.

The IDDBA, through new research commissioned this year, has compiled data on consumer shopping patterns and attitudes that will be compared with its benchmark consumer study of five years ago. The researcher who conducted both studies will present the data at the upcoming event, which runs from June 6 to 8.

Also on the Dairy-Deli-Bake '99 agenda is an exceptional lineup of speakers this year, Christison said. It includes ex-Senator Bob Dole and Elizabeth Dole, ex-president of the American Red Cross, and such top retailers as Gary Michael, chairman and chief executive officer of Albertson's, Boise, Idaho.

Highlights of SN's interview with Christison follow.

SN: What issues do your members face this year? Are they different than last year?

CHRISTISON: The issues are very similar, just a lot more immediate in terms of time pressure and fewer options. The biggest issue is one that we're all hoping will disappear at the stroke of midnight, New Year's Eve. For some, it will be anticlimactic, for others it will be a minor irritation, and for still others, it will be catastrophic.

The most difficult thing to accept is that even if all your systems are Y2K compliant, you're still at the mercy of your vendors or buyers who may not be. It will take months for everything to check out. The consumer press is already running articles about "doomsday" and about people stocking up on commodities and perishables.

Pity the poor operator who has a great year-end because the customers clean out the store. That will have to be followed by a week or so of no, or limited, product deliveries.

SN: Are there new industry trends or trends that have changed direction? If so, what's IDDBA's role?

CHRISTISON: The new trend is more like the decline of an old trend, at least the name of it. Retailers and manufacturers are shying away from the term "HMR." And with good reason. It never did represent the way consumers thought about prepared foods. They didn't say, "I'm going to pick up some HMR for dinner tonight." It was a coined phrase to describe something we'd been doing all along: making and selling meals.

The Show & Sell Center at this year's expo has some great merchandising concepts that will demonstrate that it just takes a little creativity and planning [to sell meals], not a major capital expenditure.

SN: With all the merger activity this past year, what do you see as the future for smaller independent and family-owned supermarkets?

CHRISTISON: The independents and family-owned operations are uniquely poised to fill gaps that the big guys can't. Those that really examine what they're good at, and focus on it, will be very successful. For example, there's a retailer in Seattle that buys the very finest local bakery items and sells them out of their bakery under each local baker's name. They do no baking of their own.

The customer gets the opportunity to buy top-quality products from a variety of specialized bakeries, without having to run all over town. By focusing on the best, they can choose proven signature items. Now that concept won't work for everyone, but for those who understand what their strengths are, and can build on them, it could set them apart and help give them a competitive edge.

SN: Are there opportunities presented by the mergers?

CHRISTISON: Any time there's a change in an organization or in a market, there are opportunities. Some may not be obvious, but they're there. For example, one of the unfortunate side-effects of mergers is that, often, very competent people lose their jobs through no fault of their own. The new corporation just doesn't need as many people. When that happens, the competition has an incredible opportunity to snap up very talented people with very portable intelligence. No matter how much is committed to paper or computers, the real knowledge, the real power, stays in the brain. As far as the market share goes, major change means shifting, trial and error, and bad decisions along with good ones. That's the time for the competition to really evaluate what they have to offer and stake out their territory. Customers will shop any where once or twice, but they'll be loyal to the store where they feel they're getting the best deal, the best service, the best quality, the best value.

SN: What's the major challenge this year for IDDBA? How does that differ from last year?

CHRISTISON: Our biggest challenge is really the same one we've faced for the last several years. It's how do we identify the programs and services that are going to have the most impact on the operations of our member companies. Bottom line, their success is our business.

Every nonprofit association has limited dollars to devote to new programs. Yet it's the development of those programs that keeps the organization fresh and viable in the eyes of its members. We've been very fortunate to have an active and dedicated committee system that has been able to identify critical issues and new training programs. SN: Have you developed new training programs?

CHRISTISON: We're in the final testing stage of our new CD-ROM entry-level training program for deli associates. As soon as that's rolled out, we're off and running to do the same thing for bakery.

Pressures on retailers demand training that is faster, better, and more efficient in terms of retained learning. Unfortunately, some training programs take longer than some new hires stay on the job. Our challenge has been to address the critical needs that get an employee on the floor, productive, and interested in staying on the job.

SN: What changes have you made this year in the format or focus of your seminar and expo? Why?

CHRISTISON: The format hasn't changed at all. We've identified a successful formula that buyers and merchandisers respond to and we've just tweaked it a little. The challenge is to provide educational topics and motivational speakers that address the issues facing, not just our attendees, but their customers, too. The theme of the show changes each year and is carried out through our advertising, print pieces, programming, and show decor. We practice what we preach, which is total theme merchandising.

SN: How many exhibitors this year? And what attendance figures are you projecting?

CHRISTISON: We have a sold-out floor again with 461 companies in over 900 booths. That booth count does not include the 110-booth Show & Sell Center and Cake Decorating Challenge area. Adding those puts us at well over 1,000 booths.

Registration is running way ahead of the same time period as last year and we're anticipating 6,500 or more attendees. That number could be on the low side if registration catches up with housing requests. We've just added a 12th hotel to our list. We started out with just six hotels that would more than have handled last year's attendance of 6,000 plus. We'll keep adding as long as we need to. We're fortunate that New Orleans has wonderful hotels that are very close to the convention center.

SN: Is it true that the highpoint of Dairy-Deli-Bake '99 will be the new results of the consumer studies IDDBA commissioned on consumer behavior and attitude as it relates to the bakery and deli? Have there been big changes since your benchmark study of five years ago?

CHRISTISON: The two new studies will certainly be highlights but they're not the only ones. We're delighted to have some exciting new program elements and speakers that haven't been heard on the dairy-deli-bakery circuit, at least not for some time.

Program highlights include Bob and Elizabeth Dole, Gary Michael (the CEO of Albertson's), Barry Gibbons (former CEO at Burger King), Dr. Lowell Catlett on the Future of Food, Dr. Oren Harari, and a host of other top names.

As for the deli and bakery studies, we're just now tallying the nationwide results and I can't comment because I haven't seen them yet. There are two important things about both of these studies that we're excited about.

First of all, it is very rare to be able to look at products, attitudes, and buying behaviors that are five years apart and come up with meaningful data. We're extremely fortunate in that Dr. Rosita Thomas was the researcher on the original study (through Gallup) and on this one (through Frederick Schneiders Research). She understands the subject matter, understands the consumers, and has absolute integrity as to how the questions were fielded and analyzed.

For example, if you don't ask the same question in the same way, you can't compare the results in a meaningful way. She has made certain that the survey instrument will give us the truest results possible.

SN: You've explained that "lagniappe" means a little something extra. How has IDDBA incorporated lagniappe into Dairy-Deli-Bake '99?

CHRISTISON: Obviously, by bringing in a roster of speakers that attendees couldn't hear any where else, at least not together in a very focused atmosphere. We're thrilled to get not one, but two Doles, to get not one or two, but 18 top speakers, and to get a focused expo hall featuring only the companies that are relevant to our business. And the retail buyers and merchandisers are thrilled to get the best value in town at the lowest possible price -- registration is free for retailers.

Well, I guess you can call that lagniappe. In all truthfulness though, that's how we treat our customers every day. We are always looking for a way to impart "value-added," to delight our customers with the unexpected.

For example, we recently ran a promotion on one of our new videos and, as a surprise, we included a bag of microwave popcorn with the order. Our customers loved it. It was unexpected and it made the experience more memorable.

SN: You said earlier that you're adding something extra at the Show & Sell Center. What is it?

Yes, we are. The Show & Sell Center will have the same great merchandising and fabulous product displays that we're famous for, but there'll be something extra -- lagniappe, again, if you will. In the past, we noticed that retail buyers and merchandisers bring cameras, camcorders, sketch books, you name it, all for the purpose of trying to recreate the [ShowPlace merchandising] concepts when they get home.

So this year, we're publishing the blueprints, complete with case planograms, product lists, menu suggestions, merchandising ideas, etc., and giving them away -- free. And not just to retailers as we've done in the past.

We're giving them away to everyone while supplies last.

SN: There's not one bakery symposium on the program as you had last year. Why?

CHRISTISON: Well, if you examine the program time line, you'll see that it really is there but it's two long sessions, not just one session with short topics as we had last year. We are extremely fortunate to have a very active Bakery Steering Committee. They're the ones who come up with the programming ideas and make final content selection for the seminars.

Last year's topics were short, focused, and could be covered best in a symposium format. This year's topics are equally focused but leant themselves to longer sessions. One of our strengths is our flexibility in being able to adapt to the current needs of our audience.

One of the challenges we always face is how to fit all of our programming ideas into a very short programming time slot. With as diverse a membership as we serve, it's important that we provide meaningful topics that are relative to many segments. This year, we reviewed almost 200 program suggestions. Our biggest problem was narrowing it down to the ones we'll present in June.

SN: Is there a closer relationship between deli and bakery in the industry with the advent of meal solutions?

CHRISTISON: I'd like to be able to say yes but the truth is, it's too early to tell. Certainly the departments that are managed by one individual have strong relationships. The other side of the coin is the "my-department, my-margin" attitude that prevents true cross-department cooperation. I blame management for this. True cooperation starts at the top -- if the CEO is committed to team selling, everyone else follows suit. Meal solutions has opened the doors because each department needs products or ingredients from the others. However, it's not the driver and won't be until management recognizes that it doesn't matter who gets the ring as long as the store gets the sale.

SN: Please comment on the evolution of "meal solutions" in the supermarket. Where are we on the learning curve? What have you seen happening over this last year?

CHRISTISON: Let me start with your last question first. The thing that has been most notable this last year is that the term HMR is rapidly being phased out and given a cold shoulder. I touched on this before when I said that the term HMR wasn't how consumers thought of the category. It was a convenient acronym and focused a lot of attention on the subject but as far as satisfying a customer need, it didn't.

Primarily because the customer didn't recognize it as a need. They wanted meals, not home-meal replacement. They weren't "replacing" anything. They were getting dinner. I think the convenient meal solutions tag more accurately describes the category. In reality, though, the consumer doesn't really think of it as any more than a daypart.

When they think about eating, it's "Let's stop for breakfast." "Where do you want to go for lunch?" "What's for dinner?" They don't think of where to buy; they think of what to buy for whatever time of the day they're hungry. There's no easy answer, but what you won't see is operators advertising "Day Parts Sold Here." We're still searching for that magic name that covers the category and attracts the customer's attention.

As far as where we are on the learning curve, well, we're still climbing and the climb hasn't leveled out yet. We climb two steps higher and slide back three. But with each step forward and back, we learn something. We learn about ourselves, our customers, our suppliers, our competition. And once that learning has been applied, we jump over a rung or two of competition and get ready to learn some more. Along the way, we even manage to make a little money.

SN: What kind of meal solutions information or help do your members say they want?

CHRISTISON: It used to be "how can we do it?" Now, there's been a subtle shift to "how can we get someone else to do it?" The product-quality and food-safety issues are still very much a part of the equation but operators are realizing that they don't need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars setting up a food-service operation unless that's something they really want to be good at.

They're looking for new product sources, new manufacturing partners, new specialty suppliers. They're looking for economies of scale that eliminate the labor problems and provide the customer with the highest quality product available. This is why we've instituted a monthly two-page, new product column in the Dairy-Deli-Bake Digest and why we have an extensive new-product section and new-product contest at our annual seminar.

Our exhibitors recognize that the amount of exposure their new items get at our show is so good, they delay introductions just for this event. Other types of help including packaging, merchandising, and theme concepts. They love the Show & Sell Center and the videos that we produce from that event and European shows. Visuals are wonderful for recreating ideas and building on them.

SN: We talked recently about the Show & Sell Center at Dairy-Deli-Bake and the way it will bring in the whole store. Why the new emphasis this year? And will there be continued emphasis on customer service?

CHRISTISON: Selling the Whole Store is a another way of looking at convenient meal solutions. HMR did a great job of focusing the industry's attention on meals. Especially on meals that were being sold by non-supermarket operators. The energy directed toward providing meals came from many sources, many people, many departments. Unfortunately, little attention was paid to how the consumer shops the store. Department managers often acted as though they were independent operating units instead of one part of a whole.

They acted as though their competition wasn't the supermarket down the street; it was the department across the aisle. Selling the whole store is as simple as getting back to basics.

By building displays or bundling products -- pasta, sauces, meats, cheeses -- together in a non-traditional format, we solve two problems at once: we make it easier for the customer and we get a bigger ring. We're selling convenience first, meals second -- at least in the customer's mind.

Great customer service will always play an important part in the supermarket. The one thing that will make operators choose not to offer service or to scale back is the lack of employees to work in these departments. In many instances, the decision will be forced upon the operator.

One Midwest chain has already started shifting service personnel to a self-service type operation. The people that used to be behind the counter are now out in front keeping shelves stocked and talking to customers. It's service, but of a very limited kind. All you have to do to realize this is reaching epidemic proportions is to look at the number of supermarkets that have huge "now hiring" signs on the front of their buildings or entrances.

The U.S. population is growing at a rate that will not allow us to replace the people we have now, so this problem will only get worse.

SN: What's happening in dairy? You've scheduled a dairy power panel and there have been a lot of new product introductions in the last year or so. Talk to SN about that category, please.

CHRISTISON: Dairy has always been a very solid performer and continues to turn in good numbers. Lately, as you noted, it's getting a lot more attention and is attracting non-traditional dairy products.

Expect to see an explosion in milk-based beverages and value-added products. The more we can do to make it easy for the consumer, the better it will be for everyone. Whether it's a meal in a can, cereal in a bowl, or aerosol cream cheese, the driver is convenience -- convenience for the consumer.

Organics are showing some major gains, too. Low-fat used to be a dirty word but now it's leading the category in many product areas. Portion-controlled packaging and enhanced products are also adding a lot of newness and excitement to the category. People love eating or drinking things that make them skinnier, feel better, or live longer. After all, we know about milk; it does a body good.

SN: Have you introduced additional educational materials and/or new member services since last year?

CHRISTISON: Have we ever! I'm so excited about our new Deli Basic CD-ROM. I just had the pleasure of doing a final beta test on the prototype over the weekend and that baby hums. It's extremely video-rich with lots of clips and examples in it. We wanted to offer real-life "wrongs" and "rights" because our retailers have told us these really make learning fun and increase retention.

We've got a solid training package that will put new hires on the floor, fast. When we asked our retail development group what the objective should be for this program, they told us they wanted to teach new people how to sell product, provide good customer service, and know enough about food safety and sanitation that they didn't have to worry about poisoning the customers.

We published the new Technomic study on "Actionable CMS/HMR Strategies for Top-of-Mind Impact" and we also published part two of our Category Management series. Part two included the computer templates along with the guides. Our ProfitWise and Trainer's Toolkits each had four new topics and we published a video on how good Meal Merchandising Equaled More Margins.

We just started a Jobs Open/Jobs Wanted listing on our Web site and that has been very well received. Members have also appreciated being able to print our newsletters right off the Web site, too.

SN: Any new ways you're keeping in contact with members or getting feedback from them?

CHRISTISON: We are blown away with how much traffic our Web site is generating. In April alone, over 65,000 people visited it. We're seeing huge increases in international visitors, too. And, as people are getting more comfortable with the technology, we're getting membership applications, conference registrations, exhibit requests, and tons of e-mail.