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Students Get Unusual Close-Up View of Food Industry

Students Get Unusual Close-Up View of Food Industry

It was like revisiting college, except at a Las Vegas hotel.

Attendees at last month's National Grocers Association Convention saw students camped out in hotel hallways drilling each other for presentations they would make later in the day. The event hosted a first-time student competition that attracted teams from eight food industry universities (33 students took part). Participants looked wide-eyed and determined as they explored the convention and mixed with retailers and suppliers.

They had a rare opportunity to leave the lecture hall behind for this real-world experience, formally called the Food Industry University Coalition Student Industry Case Competition, hosted by the Asparagus Club. Each team was asked to make a live presentation on how a 10-store retail group can utilize social media. Some 14 industry executives served as judges. But if the format evoked thoughts of “American Idol,” there were no Simon Cowells in the house, just supportive retailers, suppliers and association executives.

The winning team, from the University of Florida, was honored at a conference banquet dinner. Scholarships were awarded.

However, the real value of this NGA competition was the process itself, not the winning. Students spent time investigating a timely challenge — social media — and creating highly relevant solutions.

The winning group developed a social media proposal to attract a new core of younger shoppers, explained Marshal Sewell, one of the students on the Florida team, in an email responding to questions. That plan targeted millennial shoppers, ages 13 to 34, in order to “secure a strong [customer] base for years to come.”

What was their blueprint? It began with creating a listening platform (Trackur) to gain a better understanding of consumers and competitors. Next was targeting millennials using the retailer's website, Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare, Blogger, viral videos and a mobile phone application. Other platforms, such as SproutSocial, BuzzStream and DreamGrow, could play parts later.

Got all that?

The discussions weren't just technical. One student, Ken Sisneros of Portland State University, relayed to me one of his social media messages for retailers:

“It's coming. There's no stopping it. Invest now or your competition will. And many of the resources — Facebook, Twitter and others — are free.”

Kudos to Ken, because that's the same message being offered by high-priced experts.

Students benefited from other aspects of the convention too (there were about 50 students attending in all). Many spent time with industry executives in an NGA mentor program. Mentors were retailers and suppliers who shared experiences, walked students around the show floor, and made introductions.

Congratulations to NGA, students, faculty and others for giving young people memorable experiences.

These efforts, of course, were aimed at engaging the next generation of industry participants and leaders. It's hard to predict whether the initiatives will impact career directions. We can only hope that what happened in Vegas doesn't stay there.