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Consumers in Control

After nearly 30 years at the helm of the IDDBA, executive director Carol Christison talks as breezily about trends as we do about the weather. She's got a highly-valued, long-term view of how the dairy, deli and bakery categories have evolved in the retail setting, and it all rolls off her tongue like nothing.

So, it's good for the rest of us that, once a year at the show, Christison packages up everything she's learned during the past year and presents it in a face-paced hour laced with humor. If anything is apparent in 2011, it's that the consumer is firmly in control. The new mantra is "Engage me, or lose me."

"One of the trends threading throughout everything we've talked about today is how the business model has changed, and it's changed for one reason," she said. "The world has become consumer dominant. We've seen it in chat rooms, blogs and in user-generated videos on You Tube. Nothing is sacred and everything is transparent."

The realm of social media has quickly grown into a vast and far-reaching landscape. Consumers can comment or complain in open forums about products, companies or services. Christison cited one example of a guest who was contacted by the hotel chain he was staying at on the same day he complained on Twitter about his room.

"One of the more interesting job titles is that of chief listener," she said. "A chief listener's job is to analyze the number and types of mentions their company or brand gets online. Within minutes the front desk called and gave the man a new room."

The changing dynamic, called post-positioning branding, can also help companies grow. Consumers who like a brand or retailer form "a credible, unpaid army of spokespeople" who use social media to shout the brand's benefits. In short, what the company says about itself or the brand doesn't matter, Christison added.

One of the many challenges for consumers and supermarkets alike is the sheer number of smart phone apps out there that focus on food and shopping. ShopSavvy searches out the lowest prices at stores within a set area; Yowza uses global-positioning software to send coupons redeemable at nearby stores. GroceryIQ allows users to create shopping lists, organize them, get applicable coupons and share with others.

Among the more compelling developments in apps are aisle-by-aisle maps of individual stores that guide shoppers to the exact shelf of the product they're looking for. One of them, called Aisle 411, is used by more than 4,000 stores around the country.

Christison mentioned plenty of food trends as well — many of them culled from her travels over the past year. The breakfast daypart is growing. There's interest in breakfast pizza, cooked cereal and handheld egg sandwiches. Just make sure the coffee is good, for that's the biggest factor in a consumer's decision where to purchase breakfast.

Focused menus, where eateries limit themselves to one type of food — just grilled cheese, for instance, or meatballs — are big, as are food trucks and their "rodeos." Capitalizing on the cupcake trend, some operators are now promoting pies. One company makes mini pies in mason jars, a move that incorporates portion-control, small indulgence and price.

Indeed, "small" is the next big business. All the small-footprint formats under development by the nation's biggest retailers (most recently, Wal-Mart) are not only ideal vehicles to promote the on-point trends of fresh, local and clean, but they position companies to get back into urban markets. Christison cited in describing a new wave of "citysumers" who are poised to drive a new era of retail development focused on densely-populated market areas.

"One prediction says that by 2050, three-fourths of the world's population will live in cities," she said. "This has a huge impact for us because it will change how and where people shop. It will also change the number, format and location of the stores we build."