PHOENIX -- The Food Marketing Institute's first MealSolutions conference here should serve as a catalyst to launch more retailers into home meal replacement in the year to come, keynote speaker Ira Blumenthal told SN in an interview immediately after the show.
"I think it pushed the first domino that will start a whole series of actions we'll see supermarket chains take in the next year," said Blumenthal, who is president of Co-Opportunities, a consulting and marketing firm based in Atlanta. Blumenthal helped set the conference's tone with an opening speech, and then participated in a wrap-up panel of speakers at its end.
The consultant predicted that between now and the next MealSolutions event -- scheduled for Sept. 14 to 16, 1997 in Los Angeles -- retailers are likely to gather more information and experiment with ways to offer meals, perhaps using a single unit as a laboratory.
"Folks with vision will go home from MealSolutions and have planning sessions, start looking at restaurants in a new way in order to learn from them, and may run focus groups to see what customers in particular market areas want," he said.
Some retailers, as a result of catching HMR fever at the show, may change the way they're sourcing and merchandising products, Blumenthal said.
"In the next year, I expect we'll see a lot of things tried. Some will work and there will be some interesting failures. But that's all part of the learning experience," he said.
"Retailers found out at MealSolutions that HMR is as important as they thought it was -- that it's not an option, but a necessity in order to be a viable competitor for the consumer's food dollar."
The question still to be answered is how to do it, he added. Through panel discussions and in conversations with each other, attendees at the conference heard that consumers are the key to the meals business, and consumers want one-stop shopping, a department that's easy to get in and out of, and fully bundled meals, Blumenthal said.
The conference, held Sept. 8 to 10, featured 140 exhibiting companies and a roster of seminars that touched on just about every facet of offering meal solutions in supermarkets.
"I think it exceeded expectations set by the program and by preshow promotion. It was well executed and the information offered was actionable. The attendance alone -- more than 3,000 -- shows that retailers and manufacturers realize that home meal replacement is an important issue," Blumenthal said.
"ShopRite alone had a large contingent of people here and I saw top-level people from other chains and the executive directors of four food-service associations walking the show floor. That's unusual," Blumenthal said.
"I was hoping people would come to this show and see the light if they hadn't before, and I think that happened for the most part. I know of one chief operating officer of a large supermarket chain who, on the first day of the show, called his chief executive officer and told him he needed to get here," Blumenthal said.
He said another retailer, San Antonio-based H.E. Butt Grocery -- already an acknowledged leader in meals merchandising -- changed its group vice president of perishables into group vice president of meal solutions immediately after the show. Officials at H-E-B could not be reached at press time to confirm the title change.