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Spartan's Fresh Expo Continues Growing

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Retailer and distributor Spartan Stores recently hosted its third annual Fresh Experience show, attracting more than 265 vendors and food brokers to the DeVos Place convention center here.

“Build it and they will come,” Alan Hartline, Spartan Stores' executive vice president of merchandising and marketing, told SN. “The folks that were responsible for the booths, the attendees that come to the show — we were delighted with the response once again.”

Spartan's Fresh Experience expo was launched in 2009 to replace a series of smaller shows focused on fresh food categories such as meat, deli and bakery. And the 375 independent grocery operators served by Spartan's distribution arm have responded by showing up in increasing numbers ever since. Attendance was up 43% — growing from 1,400 supermarket owners, executives and store managers in 2010 — to more than 2,000 this year.

The deli category was a key focal point of this year's expo, Hartline noted, with a 3,600-square-foot “Center Stage Destination Deli” showcasing products and marketing ideas.

For example, there were thousands of different varieties of cheese for sampling. “In addition, they sampled wine with them, which showed how to cross-merchandise and create an experience in the store, now that [Michigan retailers] are allowed to sample beer and wine in our stores.”

Meal solutions also played a prominent role, with the launch of several new Spartan private-label Fresh Selections products.

“There were a lot of meal solution items for time-starved customers, or for folks that, due to economic headwinds, are looking to eat out less,” he said. “We had a number of Fresh Selections grab-and-go items. Not only lunches for kids, but for meals as well.”

Those were among the 100 Spartan Fresh Selections items launched at the show, including a new line of pork and beef, new single-serve side dishes, and a new line of organic salad blends.

“One of the biggest catalysts for the show has been the Fresh Selections brand,” Hartline said. “We've got Spartan brand, which is the No. 1 selling brand in our stores, and we leveraged that platform with Fresh Selections across the fresh perimeter. Last year we showcased that with 150 items, and this year, because of the great consumer response and the interest level from our retailers, we launched another 100 items.”

Hartline said that the show has a unique appeal to buyers, even those who might attend larger national events. Notably, Spartan operates almost 100 supermarkets of its own, so the company knows the region.

“Everybody talks about product relevance: understanding the [demographics] of your consumer and creating relevant offers for them. I think we bring that to life here as a Midwestern retailer,” he said.

And, the regional nature of the show helps Spartan tap into the locally grown food trend.

“We had well over 4,000 square feet of space committed to locally grown produce suppliers,” Hartline said. “And making that connection for the consumer — there's heightened awareness about the Michigan economy and supporting local. We offer selling solutions, connecting vendors with retailers.”

Suppliers gave rave reviews as well. “The show was as professional and well managed as any other major industry event in North America,” David Watson, vice president sales, North America central region, for Del Monte Fresh Produce, said in a release.