LAUREL, Md. -- The Retail Bakers of America here is looking to maximize its responsiveness to members this year. At its 77th convention and exposition March 11 to 13 in San Francisco, RBA will put its plans into action with a program specifically tailored to member requests.
Apart from the convention activities, RBA's top priority will be finding and implementing new ways to distribute information, said Peter Houstle, executive vice president of the trade association, which targets its programs to bakery and deli operators, both the in-store and retail segments. More regional workshops and a possible satellite link will be added to provide members with management-related information, and data on a variety of topics, including marketing, production, products, and regulatory and legal issues.
"We also keep informed on what consumers are buying and what and how retailers are moving product. It's important for us to be able to provide that information to
members as quickly and easily as possible," Houstle said.
In a preconvention interview, Houstle talked to SN about distributing information and using new technology to do so. He also discussed RBA's newly sharpened mission, its dedication to helping time-hungry members get the most out of their membership and his views on the key issues affecting in-store bakeries.
Here's what Houstle had to say:
SN: What are the challenges ahead in 1995 for RBA?
HOUSTLE: The biggest challenge is to get people to recognize the power of our information network, and to get involved. What we have found is that more retailers are "right-sizing," and that often involves making the people they have do more. So the commodity in shortest supply is time. We're an information and training source. What we do best is take advantage of a worldwide network of members who have information and are willing to share it with each other. Somebody out there knows the answer to the question somebody else asks. People want the information where they are, so we're looking to create as many points of contact between our organization and our customers as we can, with more regional workshops, for example.
We're also trying to incorporate as much mass customization as we can. An example: We're trying to build in as much flexibility as possible so our programs can be tailored to particular needs. Instead of going out there with a one-size-fits-all T-shirt, we're structuring that T-shirt so that if a person is 6 foot 4 he can stretch it. We've been doing a lot of surveys, direct mail and telephone to find out what people want. SN: What have the surveys revealed? HOUSTLE: One of the things that strikes me is that most people seem to be so overwhelmed by what they have to do in front of them that a lot of times they miss what's sitting outside their door, something that could help them out.
They're either reluctant to reach out and say "I have this problem, can you help me?" or they think, "My situation is unlike anybody else's. So there's nothing anybody could say that would have any meaning." But invariably, when I sit down and talk with people, I find their situation almost identical with someone else's. It's not to say we have the knowledge sitting right here in this office, but we can figure out who we know who can solve that problem. Nine times out of 10 we can get those people on the phone with each other almost immediately. That kind of responsiveness is what we want to build into everything we do.
SN: How do you accomplish that? HOUSTLE: Well, technically we have a conferencing function on our phone system. If you call in here with a question about production or an employee situation, we know retailers and suppliers all around the country. In fact, we have a data base in which we collect information about them. And a library that's growing every day. But many times I don't even have to go to it; I can think of somebody I know.
For technical problems we've created our own bakery brain trust. They're technical people we have on speed dial. We've also created relationships with other groups, the federal government, other trade associations, buyers groups, etc.
Even if someone's looking for a specific product, we can go into our data base and in a couple of seconds give him not only a name, but several names.
Again, we're a conduit through which people can reach other sources. There are some things we can answer ourselves, of course. Training and education, for instance. There are other times, however, I'd get our legal counsel on the phone. A retailer called me the other day who had a liability problem. The first thing I did was have our counsel talk him through the whole process.
SN: Do you have a bigger network than other organizations? How many members do you have?
HOUSTLE: We have between 3,700 and 3,800 members. Most are in the U.S., but we are involved with European and South American and Pacific Rim organizations.
SN: How many are retailers? HOUSTLE: 2,600 to 2,700.
SN: Of those, how many are supermarkets? HOUSTLE: About 300. But that's a little misleading in that Safeway, Winn-Dixie, the big chains, represent a lot of units. About 35 of the top 50 chains are RBA members.
SN: What do you think sets RBA apart from other trade or membership organizations?
HOUSTLE: In essence, it's not so much what differentiates us from other organizations. We want to do the right thing and do it as well as we can. We're trying to market what you need, when and where you need it. We look at what resources we have that we can bring to bear and do a good job of addressing a situation. If we feel we can do it well ourselves, we will. If not, we're looking for partnerships anywhere we can. We see no reason to reinvent the wheel. The whole purpose of the association, of associations in general, is to not reinvent the wheel. The reason I say call me if you have a problem is that somebody else has probably had that same problem, so why should they have to go through everything you went through? It's no different in working with other associations.
We can be out there working together. Our goal is really not to see what we can do better than somebody else, but to see what can be done and how it can get done as well as possible. If that means doing it with somebody else and they're willing, hey, great.
SN: What is your reaction to the fact that the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association has announced it is holding a new one-day bakery seminar before its annual trade show this June?
HOUSTLE: My reaction to that is not different to any other trade group having a one-day seminar.
SN: Do you see any mergers in the future? With the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, or any other group?
HOUSTLE: I honestly don't know. There are so many factors that would govern such activity. I honestly don't have a handle on what would cause or not cause a merger. There are finances, politics, egos, you name it. There are constituencies that are different and have different needs. A lot of times, I think, an organization might be too many things to too many people.
For example, as you expand your product line in a specialty shop, you have to sometime decide what you want to be. There's already FMI and NGA, and they could be considered the department stores of the food business. SN: Last year, you said RBA is putting more emphasis on deli, and that you thought of RBA as a deli organization as well as a bakery organization. What are your comments?
HOUSTLE: I think we know bakery as well as it can be known as an organization, but we also find a lot of members, both independents and in-store, that are also involved in deli. Our goal as an association is to be a top-quality bakery association and to develop the kinds of deli programs that will supplement appropriately those bakery programs in response to members' needs.
SN: I don't see any deli-specific programs on your seminar schedule.
HOUSTLE: What you'll find is not necessarily a deli program, but you'll find a lot of bakery-deli seminars. Our strategic planning sessions dictated that they address both. SN: Have you eased emphasis on deli, or are you putting the same energy into it you were a year ago?
HOUSTLE: There hasn't been a change. We're looking at a larger membership with more diversified needs.
SN: What new programs are you implementing this year?
HOUSTLE: More regional workshops. We'll have 25 this year. We had 19 the year before; the year before that, 15. We're working with Dun & Bradstreet to develop financial workshops and with AIB (American Institute of Baking) on technical workshops.
We're also exploring the possibility of using a satellite link for workshops. We're talking to a couple of organizations right now that could handle the technology.
SN: Last year, you said profitability, training and complying with nutrition labeling are the three major issues facing the industry. Is that still true?
HOUSTLE: They're still very much on people's minds. Looking back at our surveys, profitability and labor were top issues. One of the sessions at the show that will address profitability really looks at the labor issue as well. It's very difficult to do category management if you don't know labor costs. Few if any retailers have taken the time to do time-and-motion studies in the bakery. And the training issue is important, because labor's a factor in deciding what product to produce. One of the major things with right-sizing is to make sure not only every department, but every person in the store is generating true profit. You can only do that if you have a guide that allows you to recognize what true profit is. SN: What makes this show and seminar different from other RBA conventions?
HOUSTLE: We changed the format to make it a three-day show instead of five days and have integrated retail and supermarket tracks into one program.
As far as exhibit floor, it's the biggest show we've ever had -- 1,050 booths. That's about 10,000 more square feet of show floor than we had last year. The number of exhibitors is 375. That's about the same as in 1994, but we could have had more. Booth space was completely reserved early.
We have a different setup for the profit center this year. There are going to be a lot of different stations: an espresso bar, a sandwich bar and a self-service area. Tightly focused concepts will be presented. What they have in common is that retailers have successfully used these to generate profits. We did a lot of research this year on why people come to trade shows and what they want to get out of them. Really, people come to get ideas. There tends to be emphasis on seminars, but I don't care what show you're talking about, the percentage of people attending seminars as opposed to those walking the show floor is pretty small. So what you're offering people is important on the floor, too. They want to walk out of there with something they can use right away. Something that'll generate more dollars for them. We're doing a lot of things to
educate members on how to get the most out of the show this year. SN: What will particularly appeal to supermarket executives at this show?
HOUSTLE: At least 50% of our seminars provide information of particular interest to supermarket in-store bakeries, and an increasingly large number of our exhibitors are gearing their presentations to supermarket in-store bakeries. There are more products suited to in-store bakeries.
When we generate programs, they're not done in a vacuum. We respond to what people have said they want.
SN: For example?
HOUSTLE: The profitability seminar got a high rating last year and nutrition labeling was No. 1 in ratings last year.
Profitability is very important. Look what's happened in the last five or six years. You can buy food anywhere. There's no sacred ground for food service. You can buy food in a liquor store, in a gas station. That means we in the food industry really have to do it right to make a profit. Nutritionwise, probably the best model [to show what consumers want] is in dairy. When you look at the linear footage devoted to light and fat-free products, five years ago, you saw practically nothing of that. Now 50% of space is devoted to low-fat and no-fat items. That's a pretty big shift.
SN: You've done a survey on how retailers have responded to the nutrition labeling law. HOUSTLE: We did telephone and direct mail surveys. Altogether we reached about 150 companies; in terms of numbers of units represented, 8,000 to 10,000.
SN: What did you ask?
HOUSTLE: We asked the extent to which they are or are not labeling products; how their customers are responding, and what kind of regulatory experiences have they had. I'm also doing store visits myself in three or four market areas. SN: What have the surveys shown?
HOUSTLE: We'll present the results in San Francisco. We did find out, though, that many retailers were apprehensive about what the customers' reaction will be when they see a product's fat content.
But there are also retailers like Ukrop's and Giant who are aggressively out there, helping people, teaching them about nutrition. SN: I know you said this will be your biggest show yet in terms of exhibitors, but what are your projections at this point for show attendance?
HOUSTLE: I expect registration to hit the 10,000 to 12,000 range. Last year, we had 8,500. There are several reasons I think that will be true. For one thing, the location. You can't be in a better food town than San Francisco. They'll see an awful lot of food within walking distance in all sorts of venues.
And it's been four years since we had the show on the West Coast. There's also a ton of bakeries out there.
SN: What are your legislative goals this year? What will you be focusing on?
HOUSTLE: We're specifically trying to get the OSHA regulations modified to make in-house training easier. Right now, 16- and 17-year-olds are not allowed in the production area. But equipment has come a long way in terms of safety since some of the OSHA regulations were written years ago. We're hopeful about changes with the new Congress.
We're also getting together with the Food and Drug Administration to talk about compliance at store level. I think FDA is least comfortable with in-store bakery production and what their ideas of store production are.
SN: What's happening with your own training program in conjunction with vocational schools?
HOUSTLE: We're developing real performance-based benchmarks. There's been a real gap in expectations between retailer, educator and graduate. We're not necessarily closing the gap yet, but we're recognizing it at least.