PHOENIX -- Supermarkets hoping to succeed in the meal marketing arena are discovering they have a long menu of options at their disposal.
Retailers attending the Food Marketing Institute's groundbreaking MealSolutions show and conference here last week said they found many possible answers to the multiple challenges of food service.
The three-day event was part pep rally, part meal program primer and part reality check on the difficulties ahead. The consensus among organizers, exhibitors and attendees was that, while no magic bullet was found, major themes emerged that may help the industry better define how it intends to offer consumers convenient, fast and essentially fresh meal solutions and prevent the siphoning of sales to food-service operators.
The themes included the need for top-level management commitment, for the importation of professional food-service talent into the ranks, for advanced strategic planning that sets clear goals, and for breaking away from grocery style measurements of success and failure.
"Since there's not just one right way to succeed in the home meal replacement business, we may be offering you confusion. There will be a lot to think about, but we expect to raise the key questions and offer some solutions and ideas that will help you figure out what's best for you," said one speaker at the opening session of the three-day event.
Retailers and manufacturers attending the event told SN they thought the show had unique value, even merely as an event that brought so many retailers and manufacturers together to talk about meal solutions.
"Just the fact that the show is being held, and that everybody is thinking about how to provide meals that customers want -- that's exciting," said one retailer. Another said, "It has definitely stirred up my thinking."
By several quantitative measures, the MealSolutions show was heralded as a success. On the morning of the last day, the registration tally had hit 3,062, three times the benchmark of 1,000 for a brand new show of this kind, said FMI President Tim Hammonds. The ratio of retailers to exhibitors was very high, described by one FMI official as "unprecedented."
Of the total registered attendees, 1,169 were retailers and wholesalers; 1,238 were exhibitors and 655 fell into other categories. On the retail side, there was a high proportion of top-level executives at the show, the registration roster showed. In addition, half of the 134 companies represented on the show floor had never exhibited at an FMI show before, Hammonds said.
Retail attendees told SN they appreciated an especially strong series of general sessions and workshops, many of which featured supermarket executives with considerable experience in meal solutions, as well as food-service operators and consultants.
Discussions ranged from the practical to the esoteric. One workshop featured a panel of experts in store design, for example, which offered advice about lighting and in-store location to call customers' attention to prepared foods or meals centers in the store. The panel also described elements that could be added quickly to set off such a section or even use packaged grocery staples to suggest full meals.
"You can use banners and colorful graphics that have a simple message on them, a message that lets people know you're in home meal replacement," said Barbara Barker-Brown, president of Off the Wall Co., a Telford, Pa., design firm.
"Or it can be as simple as putting a message on a blackboard that gives customers a meal idea," she added.
In another workshop, on the role of the manufacturer in meal solutions, Tom Finn, national sales manager for Celentano Inc., Verona, N.J., and Ray Taglialatela, director of perishables merchandising at Genuardi's Family Markets, Norristown, Pa., discussed the relationship their two companies have forged with each other, a recurring theme.
"We have a continuous exchange of information. As the word 'partner' suggests, this is not a one-sided relationship. It's been built on trust and an understanding [of each other's businesses]. I never thought we'd be sharing so much proprietary information with a supplier, but we are," said Taglialatela.
In a wind-up session that focused on "Where Do We Go From Here?" keynote speaker Ira Blumenthal, president of Co-Opportunities, Atlanta, suggested that retailers discover what the barriers are to getting into meals merchandising, make a commitment to get into it and develop a business plan.
"That much can be done in six to eight months. You can tweak it later, but start with something," he said.