The Efficient Consumer Response initiative took center stage last month. The Food Marketing Institute, the key force behind ECR, had the right audience, at the right place, at the right time. At FMI's annual Midwinter Executive Conference in Boca Raton, the heads of all the major chains and many brand marketers were gathered. It clearly was time for ECR to strut its stuff. That's exactly what happened in speeches listing benefits and announcing pilot tests later this year to prove these benefits. For the record, ECR refers to a group of technologies and business practices that leads to a less costly and more efficient flow of products through the distribution pipeline. The dead net result: billions of dollars are saved. While the industry was gathering in Boca Raton, some low-level criticism of ECR has been gathering around the country. Differing points of view, of course, are often entertaining. For example, the ECR initiative has turned into a Tower of Babel. In other words, too many voices from too many segments of the industry are speaking out at the same time about their rightful place in the Brave New World of Supermarketing. Many proponents fear that ECR will become muddled at a time when a clear message and direction are needed for real progress. In reality, this jockeying for position among brand marketers, retailers, wholesalers and brokers was not unexpected. Such a dramatic change in the way of doing business is bound to make people nervous. But too many executives have staked their reputations on ECR for its momentum to be -- shall we say -- diverted. Sure, people are nervous about change. But the Wal-Mart juggernaut makes them even more nervous. Another criticism: The technology and business practices that make up ECR have been around for a decade. FMI merely wrapped some fancy paper around all of them and came up with a catchy name. So what? Maybe the technology behind ECR had to be more accessible. Maybe it had to cost less. Maybe someone noticed the ground-breaking ceremonies for a few hundred supercenters.
Another criticism: The supermarket industry is focusing too much attention on cutting costs, and not enough on generating revenue. The latter can come, say, from bringing in new shoppers. Also, supermarkets would be better off concentrating on what they do best -- offering variety and convenience, in general, and outstanding fresh food, in particular. Actually, those are really good ideas, but the mandate to put ECR practices in place supersedes all. When the industry leaders left Boca Raton, they surely were looking forward to the pilot tests of ECR practices around the country throughout the year. Here's hoping the results are positive. If they aren't, dealing with ECR criticism won't be very entertaining.