Jack H. Brown usually can be depended upon to give a heartfelt assessment of the food-distribution industry, and Jack didn't disappoint last week.
As nearly everyone in the industry knows, Jack is chairman, president and chief executive officer of Stater Bros. Markets in the "great inland empire," as he says, of southern California. Jack was also a keynote speaker at last week's convention of the Western Association of Food Chains, in Palm Desert, Calif.
Jack's speech forms the basis of a news article, reported by SN's Elliot Zwiebach, which you'll find on Page 1, but let's spend a moment to take a closer look at Jack's talk at the show.
The crux of it was all about partnerships and the loyalty that should flow from that; the loyalty retailers should have for their vendors and the loyalty manufacturers should have for their retailers.
He pointed out that food retailers and manufacturers have been through quite bit together in the many years the supermarket industry has been around. Signal events have included wars and economic episodes as grave as depression and recessions -- plus their purported cures, such as price controls. Through it all, he maintained, retailers remained loyal to their vendors and didn't seek to jettison lines just because an excuse to do so presented itself.
And, as the business started to change, retailers acted in concert with their vendors to bring about necessary change: "When you asked us to carry expanded lines and facings, we did it because we were partners."
Now, the situation has changed. Although Jack didn't express it in quite this way, the reality is that with the advent of a host of alternate channels into food retailing, vendors simply don't need supermarkets as much as they used to. Upon cold analysis, a manufacturer may care little whether product gets to consumers by means of a supermarket, a membership club or a drug store. What's the difference?
Well, to Jack the difference is loyalty and the difference is the faithfulness exhibited by retailers in earlier times. Now is the time for manufacturers to make known to supermarkets all marketing tools of any description so supermarkets can continue to be in the game, he asserted.
That said, I'm sure Jack would be the last to suggest that supermarkets themselves aren't culpable to some degree in the growth of other formats. Indeed, he pointed out that while supermarkets used to have an exclusive franchise on local community involvement, insurgent retailers haven't done too bad a job in that regard.
Clearly, then, the bottom line is that while supermarkets have the right to the full benefits of longstanding relationships with their vendors, supermarkets can't rest on that alone. They need to help themselves by remaining engaged in local marketing. A local-marketing initiative is far more likely to recapture lost consumer dollars than are ill-advised efforts to go against other formats by appealing to consumers on a price-only basis.
Incidentally, Jack happened to send me a letter in recent days extending his congratulations on the occasion of SN's Golden Anniversary. He mentioned in his letter that he started in food retailing 50 years ago this year as a box boy. Happy 50th to Jack, too.