Ask a typical U.S. supermarket operator how often he or she pays attention to foreign food retail developments and you would probably hear, "Almost never," or, "Only if my life depends on it."
Now it turns out their business life may depend on it.
Issues as diverse as electronic standards, food safety and consumer preferences are taking on new global dimensions, and retailers everywhere need to take notice. That case was made compellingly this month by Pierre-Olivier Beckers, president and chief executive officer of Delhaize Group, in a speech at the Food Marketing Institute's Midwinter Executive Conference.
"The issues we face everywhere as an industry are similar," he told the audience of top retail and supplier executives. "We must realize that, and we need to put our priorities in order."
Beckers is in a unique position to discuss this topic. He has one foot in Belgium, where Delhaize is based, and the other in the U.S., where Delhaize USA operates with chains including Food Lion and Hannaford Bros.
An issue of prime importance to retailers worldwide is the formation of global electronic standards, which will enable companies to communicate without systems discrepancies and errors, Beckers said. He stressed the need for more advances. He isn't the only one embracing that viewpoint. By the time he spoke, board members of FMI and Grocery Manufacturers of America had already met at the convention to endorse a white paper calling for immediate movement on implementing global standards to speed transactions, lower costs and increase performance. These board members also heard the results of A.T. Kearney case studies on the cost-saving benefits of data synchronization.
Clearly, U.S. companies are getting the message on the need for global standards. But Beckers warned that without ongoing cooperation among associations and trading partners across the world, the momentum will slow.
Aside from standards, Beckers provided other examples of the need for food retailers to view the world in a holistic fashion. He noted that food safety is no longer a problem confined by borders, and that U.S. retailers and consumers will have to face issues together with their European counterparts. The Global Food Safety Initiative is one response to that challenge. "Now the GMOs problem is coming to the U.S., and people are beginning to wonder," he said. "We have to sort this out together."
Probably the most important thing connecting U.S. retailers and their foreign cousins is the similar outlooks and preferences of consumers. Europeans and Americans have both learned that low prices appeal to shoppers of all incomes. "We saw BMWs in the parking lots of Aldi stores," Beckers said. "Price is very important, so we must be competitive or die."
Speaking of similarities among consumers, Beckers told the U.S. audience that his three teenagers in Belgium "probably listen to the same music as yours, play the same computer games and wear the same clothes, and they might be chatting with your kids on the Internet."
Given that perspective, it's easy to accept Beckers' conclusion that today's leaders need to "bridge the gap between our continents and our systems before our kids show us how easy it can be done."