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SN Asks: Big Ideas in the Big Easy

It's been a challenging year so far for bakery and deli operators. Many supermarket retailers are reporting great results as shoppers eat at restaurants less, and head to their prepared-food departments more often. But the price of ingredients ranging from flour to eggs to meat and cheese has been soaring, and it's been tough for many operators to raise their own prices to keep pace. Those

NEW ORLEANS — It's been a challenging year so far for bakery and deli operators. Many supermarket retailers are reporting great results as shoppers eat at restaurants less, and head to their prepared-food departments more often. But the price of ingredients ranging from flour to eggs to meat and cheese has been soaring, and it's been tough for many operators to raise their own prices to keep pace. Those issues will be on everyone's mind as the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Show opens here this week. The show features a compelling lineup of speakers, including industry analysts, celebrity chefs Emeril Lagasse and Paula Deen, actor John Cleese and author Malcolm Gladwell. And, as usual, IDDBA Executive Director Carol Christison will be presenting the association's annual take on current trends in her presentation on Monday, June 2, at 8:15 a.m. Christison took a few minutes to discuss these trends, and this year's show, with SN.

Supermarket News: You will be giving your annual presentation on food trends currently shaping the industry on Monday, June 2. Could you offer SN readers a preview?

Carol Christison: When it comes to trends, we look for patterns. We try to identify the issues that are changing the way people eat and, ultimately, the way retailers sell. Convenience is still a major driver. Handheld foods, on-the-go-foods, meal alternatives and easy-eating foods are driving the category. Supermarket operators are looking at restaurants for ideas, and restaurants are looking at supermarkets for ideas. As consumers tighten their grip on their wallet, it's going to be more important than ever to find ways to loosen that grip. One of the ways to do that is through experiential eating. Any time you can engage the customer by having them participate in the making of something or getting them to “design” their own product, it's positive.

My presentation will touch on some of the hot new eating trends, functional food trends, packaging, changing formats, the economy and consumer lifestyles.

SN: Rising food prices are a major issue for shoppers right now. Bakers are getting hit hard by the rising cost of flour and eggs; dairy prices have moderated, but are still very high. What is your take on the situation?

CC: Surging commodity prices have pushed up global food prices 83% in the past three years, according to the World Bank. That makes this a global problem. Some countries have experienced riots over food and even had to use martial law to protect foodstuffs.

In North America, consumers are changing their attitudes about spending as well as their spending habits. Some people are in a state of shock as they realize the easy money, easy mortgage and house-equity loans of the past have, in some cases, resulted in their mortgages being worth more than their houses. As a result, many people don't have much cushion.

We're seeing more at-home eating than a few years ago. And that's a good thing. The economic stimulus check is just starting to hit homes now. In the past, some would have looked at that as “fun” money. The National Retail Federation did a survey and found that 21.2 million people planned to spend the money on food. Back in February, 12.1 million were going to spend the rebate on gas. That's now up to 17.2 million.

The availability of plentiful, cheap food in the past has been pretty much taken for granted, but in the last few months food prices have begun competing with oil prices as the topic of conversation. The retail community recognizes that people have difficult choices. Retailers are being proactive and reaching out to consumers via email, promotions and in-store specials to let them know that they're aware of the situation and they're trying to help. Many, many retailers have cut prices, are offering more regular low-priced items and fewer temporary sales.

A new Nielsen study reports that 49% of U.S. consumers are reducing spending to compensate for rising gas prices. Seventy percent are combining shopping trips and errands, 41% are eating out less and 39% are staying home more often. This means that more people are cooking at home. Consumers are doing more stock-up shopping, using lists and cutting back on non-essentials.

SN: How is growing interest in nutrition and healthy eating impacting your members?

CC: That's actually the topic of a new research study that we commissioned this year. The preliminary results will be presented by Dr. A. Elizabeth Sloan at the show, and the full report will be published this summer.

Consumers are much more interested in taking control of their nutritional needs than they were a few years ago. Back then, they made more dietary trade-offs; today, they're changing how and what they eat. They're looking at food as medicine and making decisions that will affect their current and long-term health. They want to maintain their vitality and energy into their later years.

They're also not as willing to accept what the “experts” tell them. They're doing a lot more fact-finding on their own, mostly through books and the Internet. They're taking responsibility for their health and self-diagnosing ailments. IDDBA members are marketing their foods with more information and sharing nutritional benefits with customers. Websites play a major role in educating consumers. Portion control is also important. Some of these foods have been called the “lesser evil” foods. They have less of what consumers think of as negative (fat, calories, sodium, etc.) and more of what consumers think of as positive (calcium, vitamin-added, omega-3s, etc.).

SN: Also, IDDBA released a report on consumer concerns about environmental sustainability last year. What are some of the ways dairy, deli and bakery suppliers and retailers are “going green?”

CC: The response to that study, “Environmental Sustainability: The Power of Green,” was so positive that the IDDBA board did something they'd never done before. They made the full report available to members as a free download. It's become a blueprint for creating sustainability. Some of the best practices that are delivering big results include alternative lighting sources, fuel conversion systems in trucks, truck-idle reduction technology, reduction and recycling of corrugated packaging, remapping driving routes for efficiency, sustainable agriculture, alternative packaging, shipping container reduction or elimination, reduced carbon dioxide emissions, plant redesigns, water purification and recycling, and more.

SN: Can you tell us anything about this year's Show & Sell Center? What can attendees expect?

CC: We've added a new twist to the Show & Sell Center. It's called “Teach & Tell in the Show & Sell.” This idea center is created by retailers and other volunteers who are on the cutting edge of merchandising and food preparation. In addition to designing and planning the hundreds of displays, they'll also be on hand to talk about the concepts and explain the creative process behind them. Attendees will have “face time” with the designers and can get answers to questions. These talented people are all “foodies” with real day jobs and lots of demands. But they still find time to volunteer to build this 10,000-square-foot merchandising pavilion. And that doesn't count the kitchen and prep area. That's another 10,000 square feet. It's like a giant store opening, except they're building the store around you at the same time that you're setting cases.

SN: The IDDBA show was scheduled to take place in New Orleans in June 2006, but had to be moved due to damage from Hurricane Katrina. Yet, IDDBA was one of the first major trade shows to promise to return to the city. Are you excited to have the show back in New Orleans this year?

CC: Are we ever! It's been a lot of fun to plan the event. The attendees are excited about going back to this fabulous city with its wonderful restaurants and historic areas. The people in New Orleans have a wonderful spirit that offers the most incredible hospitality and welcoming atmosphere. The last time we were there, our show was in three halls. This time it's in six halls. And we're delighted to have some great foodies as speakers. Emeril Lagasse and Paula Deen have a huge following in our business. All of the speakers are looking forward to coming back to New Orleans. People are coming for the food and staying for the music.