RANDOLPH, Mass. -- The Northeast Fresh Foods Alliance here has redesigned its show floor to create category-specific sections and has expanded exhibit hours at its 2000 Conference & Expo set to open next week in Boston.
Those changes, plus a beefed-up menu of educational seminars, are aimed at delivering as much convenience as possible to attendees, said Andrea Walker, NEFFA executive director.
She said the organization recognizes retailers are as time-starved as everybody else and is trying to find ways to address that. Segmenting the show floor into product categories, a first for NEFFA, epitomizes that effort by offering attendees a "one-stop" shop, Walker said.
"A retailer can best utilize his time going to one section of the show floor where he or she will be surrounded by the companies specifically applicable to his or her category. That does not mean that other areas may not be of interest, but this allows for an effective use of what may be limited time."
On the menu of seminars, time is addressed as well. Keynote speaker Harold Lloyd, a retail consultant and former retailer himself, will talk about how to best utilize time in the pursuit of sales and profits. Time-saving strategies in the in-store bakery will be explored in another seminar. Other sessions are aimed at helping small independents survive in an increasingly competitive marketplace, said Jim Niedzolkowski, NEFFA president. "Seminar programming for 2000 has been expanded to include subjects of specific interest to independent retailers, such as employee training, sanitation and food handling, and competing with alternate formats and the chains," he said.
Indeed, consultant Dennis Hedegard, a former Shaw's executive, will conduct a seminar called "David vs. Goliath" that will offer specific strategies for competing with the giants of the industry. Other sessions will focus on organics, meat merchandising, and what the future holds. A consumer panel assembled from NEFFA's consumer database will be a program highlight.
SN interviewed Walker, Niedzolkowski, and NEFFA marketing director Lavinia Macala as they prepared for the annual event, which kicks off on April 12 at Boston's World Trade Center. Here are highlights from that interview:
SN: I notice that the new show floor layout has a section designated for private-label manufacturers. Please comment on that.
WALKER: That's a first for us. That area allows exhibiting manufacturers an added opportunity to indicate their capabilities for private label in a time-and cost-efficient manner. In the past, they would make appointments to see buyers at their desk. Often, buyers would not be receptive to considering another private-label option because of the length of time it takes for a private-label product to be reviewed and tested to bring it to market. So the manufacturers with current private-label contracts had the advantage. However, there are numerous manufacturers who offer private-label services and this will help buyers identify them.
SN: From your observations, what's the status and what are the opportunities for retailers and manufacturers in private-label perishables?
WALKER: The opportunities are huge. For example, eggs are a $95 million category in New England, with an estimated 90% of the category in private label. Almost every viable product line in the perishables arena has a private-label counterpart today. Right now, the most private-label activity is in dairy.
SN: Are there changes in the format of your show and seminars other than the new floor plan? If so, what is their purpose?
NIEDZOLKOWSKI: The New England market has always had a high percentage of independent retailers. In response to NEFFA's survey of this population, changes that I described earlier were made to allow for greater participation from this group. Many are members of NEFFA and look to us to provide them with services and information pertinent to their needs.
SN: Has your retail advisory council been helpful in developing your conference and expo program?
NIEDZOLKOWSKI: Yes, very. In addition to surveying the independent operators, the conversations we had with the chains (category manager and above) offered valuable insights into how NEFFA's conference and exposition could better serve their needs. These recommendations are reflected in new features this year such as the category-specific floor plan and seminars on how to more effectively utilize time and efforts to compete more effectively and to achieve greater profits.
SN: I know there are labor concerns, particularly for in-store bakeries? Any seminars addressing that?
WALKER: Joe Amicone, of Joe Amicone & Associates, a pioneer in developing predeposited dough, will lead a panel discussion about predeposited dough and other labor-saving techniques. The seminar on upscaling the bakery case, too, will be helpful. Sanitation is top of mind for everyone, and KPI offers a course in HACCP certification. Topline elements from this course will be discussed in that seminar.
SN: Last year, we talked about the consumer survey and the outstanding number of responses you received. Did you conduct a preshow survey this year?
WALKER: In lieu of a survey this year, we have invited 200 consumers to actually walk the conference and expo with the [intention] to communicate directly [to] manufacturers and retailers with their questions. NEFFA will also survey this group of consumers after the event with regard to what consumers saw on the exhibit floor. We're also providing manufacturers and retailers with the opportunity to set up informal focus groups with segments of this consumer community to provide some immediate feedback as to products and/or merchandising.
SN: Are there new issues your membership has asked that NEFFA address?
WALKER: We are having topline results generated from NEFFA's second survey, which pertained to more lifestyle aspects of shopping. We have also polled our membership soliciting them for their challenges for the next five years as well as what they want to know from consumers that will help them meet these and other challenges. Dr. Selbert will incorporate these findings into the consumer panel discussion. It will make this part of the program more relevant directly to the Northeast.
SN: How did it work out last year to have your consumer-respondents walking the floor identified by the store they shop in? Did you get positive feedback from exhibitors? Retailers?
NIEDZOLKOWSKI: Actually, it worked out quite well, so much so that the recommendation was made to increase the number of consumers at the conference and expo, and to have them available for private informal focus group opportunities. The exhibitors were delighted to get consumer feedback first hand. Retailers were anxious to speak to consumers who participated in the consumer panel. That is a key reason for bringing a panel of new consumers to this year's event.
SN: We've also talked in the past about your networking events other than the show itself? Were you successful in boosting attendance at them? What was the best-attended event?
MACALA: The membership has shown tremendous interest in this venue. Our annual golf tournament, held in May, is a sellout. The proceeds go to fund NEFFA's Scholarship Program. NEFFA @ Saratoga was so well received it has been sold out for 2000 since January. And our Annual Weekend Conference in the fall had every major customer chain and independent represented. A NEFFA cruise on the Odyssey in Boston Harbor this summer to view the Tall Ships is nearly booked now. But the most important event to date was NEFFA's 20th Anniversary Dinner Dance in Boston in February. More than 350 people came to celebrate NEFFA and to honor 13 industry professionals with NEFFA's first Leadership & Vision Awards.
SN: Any new strategies to get input from retailers, from consumers?
MACALA: The members of NEFFA continue to be the most important source of information, as they are in constant contact with the board of directors and staff offering valuable perspective and commentary regarding the Alliance and its programming.
SN: Was your Web site a success in its first year?
NIEDZOLKOWSKI: Yes, we feel it was a great opportunity to showcase the Alliance, its member sponsors, and its programming. It provides information on demand. We have received numerous inquiries regarding participation as a member of NEFFA and in various events.
SN: In your opinion, what's the most significant thing NEFFA has done for its members this year?
WALKER: We continue to be a source of information in the ever-changing marketplace of the Northeast, expanding our horizons further south and east, and most significantly into five provinces of Canada. Key members of NEFFA's executive committee have been keynote speakers at various Canadian manufacturer conferences regarding export initiatives into the United States.
SN: Since this is your 20th anniversary, would you identify turning points or name two or three of the most far-reaching accomplishments of the association in the past 20 years?
WALKER: Expanding product category reach (bakery, then fresh meat and more), geographic reach -- taking annual weekend convention to foreign countries, opening a CT office in 1992, incorporating Upstate New York into our immediate mission and 12 other states with events -- both of these factors necessitated a name change; taking a one-day taste show to a two-day full education conference format.
In keeping with NEFFA's initiative to incorporate the fresh-meat category, Elizabeth Wunderlich from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association will feature a presentation both days of this year's conference and expo that will address such issues as consumers' attitudes toward beef and how they shop for it.
SN: What do you see as the major challenge this year for NEFFA as an organization?
NIEDZOLKOWSKI: To remain viable as an association that provides its membership value.
SN: What's the major challenge facing your retailer-members this year?
NIEDZOLKOWSKI: Mergers and acquisitions.
SN: What trends brewing right now are apt to have a significant impact on the industry in the next 10 years?
WALKER: On-line shopping, not just by consumers. With the opportunity to source product via the Internet, note seafood and produce currently, this development will impact how manufacturers and brokers go to market; Organics, and their growing influence.