The principal presentation at last week's Western Food Industry Exposition had to do with consolidation and whether large-scale retailing offers such a profound advantage that mid-level retailers may be squeezed out.
You'll find more about the presentation in the news article on Page 1, but for the moment, focus on another aspect of that presentation: Information in the era of consolidation. By information, I refer to the very basic type of information and learning that occurs at trade meetings such as last week's WFIE or this week's Produce Marketing Association convention in Anaheim, Calif. (See the column below for more on that event.)
Here's how consolidation and information relate: As fewer and fewer retailers gain more and more market share, it's not much of an exaggeration to say that every large-scale company competes directly with every other large-scale company. As the industry is distilled down to directly competing companies, the willingness to participate in trade-association forums as a presenter starts to diminish. It also might be added that such companies also start to exhibit an unwillingness to participate in the composition of news and feature articles for the specialty press, such as SN.
This issue came up, at least obliquely, in a question asked of panelists who participated in the WFIE session. The question, posed by Peter Gertler, was something to this effect: "How valuable are industry forums, and what is the future of information forums?" I'm going to assume Peter's question sprang from thinking such as that I proposed above since that seemed to be how panelists took the question, based on their responses. (Take a look at the front-page article to learn the full identities of the participants.)
FMI's Tim Hammonds struck right to the heart of the matter: "In today's environment, there's a double-edged sword working. There has never been a greater need for the industry to come together and think about where we're going, what the future is going to look like and how retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers can cooperate. The other edge of that sword, though, is that the strategic issues are so important that companies aren't going to share their real strategic issues the way they could a generation ago. Some of the associations in this industry need to be willing to go through the same kind of thinking our member companies are going through, which is how can we do something different? How can we react?" (To see part of the answer to that rhetorical question, see Page 16.) GMA's Manly Molpus answered the question by citing the long practice of information sharing that pertains in the industry: "The industry has a long institutional tradition of meetings at which we can come together and talk together about the industry and how we can move forward together to serve consumers. There are, obviously, some things that are propriety, but in this time of change we need to figure out how to embrace a whole new technological world together."
Associated's Rich Parkinson pointed out that independents and their wholesalers have ample incentive to meet and cooperate to some degree: "We need to understand that the greatest strength we've had as an independent sector is sometimes our greatest liability -- that the entrepreneurial attitude helps independent grocers succeed against the odds, but it at the same time prevents them from laying down some of that independence and joining ranks together for the common good."