RANDOLPH, Mass. -- As the Northeast Fresh Foods Alliance here prepared for its annual conference and expo this week in Boston, it was evident the group is putting a fresh focus on communication.
True to its name, the NEFFA has made new efforts to strengthen alliances among its members and is taking unprecedented measures to help members get input from their consumers, said Andrea Walker, NEFFA executive director.
Indeed, consumers take the spotlight at this year's conference, titled "Fresh Ideas!" April 13 and 14 at Boston's World Trade Center. Speaker Bill Pizzico, president of Prizm Marketing Inc.,Blue Bell, Pa., will present results from a NEFFA-sponsored consumer survey and then will moderate a panel of consumer-survey respondents.
And, in an innovative move, the NEFFA will bring a selected number of consumers -- drawn from its 14,000-person data base -- face to face with retailers and manufacturers on the show floor this year.
"It's like we have a huge focus group and it is specific to perishables and to the Northeast," Walker said, as she described the group of 14,000 consumers with whom the NEFFA has contact.
Walker said the NEFFA has renewed its commitment, too, to getting practical input from its own membership.
Discussing that effort, she pointed out that both retailer and manufacturer members have indicated they're hungry for regional consumer data. And Niedzolkowski said NEFFA's consumer respondents seem eager to comply.
"You can see that from the reaction we got to our survey. We had a 63% response rate, and that's to a survey that was several pages long. I think that typifies what the Northeast consumer is all about," Niedzolkowski said.
"A lot of people in New England are used to [voicing their opinions at] town meetings. They've been brought up in an environment where they have a say in what's going on," Niedzolkowski said.
The NEFFA was successful in gathering information from 2,500 consumers. A 30-item questionnaire was sent out to a group of 4,000 consumers chosen from the Alliance's database and 2,500 of them responded, Walker pointed out.
"The 50 people, who can bring a guest of their choice, will be wearing badges that will identify them and where they shop. For example, a badge might say, 'Jane Smith, Big Y shopper.' We've made it clear to them they were invited because they're willing to give their opinions, that this is a business environment," Walker said.
By identifying where the consumers do their grocery shopping, the NEFFA has aimed to make it easy for retailers, as well as manufacturers, to interact with them on the show floor, Niedzolkowski said.
"Retailers, seeing them, can ask them for their opinions, what they want in their grocery store," he added.
The group of consumer attendees will participate in show activities, too, by voting in a recipe contest, Walker said. Ten manufacturers have put their corporate chefs to work on the show floor offering tastes of their newest creation, she explained. Show attendees are asked to choose the best. Also, manufacturers' new products, which will be identified as such this year, will get a vote from the consumers. The consumer group will also attend the educational seminars Wednesday.
"We've surveyed consumers before, but not in such big numbers, and not like this. This is the most intensive it's been," Walker said.
Members' enthusiastic reaction to a consumer panel discussion that was part of the NEFFA seminar lineup at last year's conference and expo confirmed the need for more consumer input, Niedzolkowski said.
"I saw [retailer and manufacturer] executives hurriedly scribbling notes down as the consumers talked. And they asked them a lot of questions. We had to end that session because the show [floor] was opening, but it could have gone the rest of the day, I think," he said.
Walker also said the NEFFA took its cue from the "incredible" response it has had to shorter surveys it has conducted via its publication, Consumer Watch.
While NEFFA is facilitating the information flow from consumer to members, it is also looking for ways to get feedback from its members, Walker said.
"We've always been retailer driven, but we've renewed that emphasis this year. We have a retail advisory council and we invited them to the office recently," Walker said. She said the NEFFA has taken an altogether more proactive role in soliciting opinions and getting its members together in the same place.
"One of our biggest challenges is to get people involved in events outside our annual show," she said.
This year, the NEFFA reached out in new ways to urge retailers to attend the networking events it sponsors throughout the year.
Walker offered some examples. One, she said, is that the NEFFA is now issuing invitations directly to retailers to attend weekend conferences, golf outings, and the like, instead of having the invitation come from a manufacturer member.
"A large manufacturer, for instance, that is a NEFFA sponsor, could have invited a retailer previously, and the retailer may have thought they shouldn't accept because the invitation came from one of their suppliers. They could have felt obligated to the supplier."
She said retailers have responded positively to the invitations coming from the NEFFA itself. Niedzolkowski heartily seconded that sentiment.
"They want to participate in the networking events. As soon as we offer a venue, they jump on it," he said.
Niedzolkowski said he thinks networking opportunities are particularly valuable in an environment that's becoming more global and faster-paced everyday.
"I represent a lot of manufacturers [as vice president of dairy, at Eastern Sales & Marketing, Needham, Mass.] that are not located in the Northeast but they have as close an association in the Northeast as they do in any other part of the country because of our events. They get to know people through NEFFA," Niedzolkowski said.
He added that networking, by putting people face to face with each other in a casual environment, "does wonders to break down barriers."
And Walker said such events serve the NEFFA well because they enable the alliance to bounce ideas off more of its members and more effectively find out what they want.
She said anticipating as well as fulfilling members' needs is a must for any organization. "We want to offer them value and we can only do that if we know what they want. We're constantly telling our members to let us know what they like and don't like. We tell them to e-mail us, write to us, call us, send us anonymous messages if they want to," Walker said.
To add to its communication tools, the NEFFA will unveil a new Web site at the show. Effective April 13, members can access the NEFFA Web site at NEFFA.com.
Asked what industry trends they see emerging in the Northeast that will affect their members, Walker and Niedzolkowski agreed that the accelerating trend for companies to merge and consolidate is the major one. Manufacturers worry that with big retailers merging with others, their buying offices will move out of their territory, and some smaller retailers feel that they're at a disadvantage, said Niedzolkowski.
But he and Walker both see the mergers creating new opportunities for independents and small, regional chains. The NEFFA's membership roster includes a number of those companies as well as the big ones, Walker said.
She pointed out that the smaller companies could gain in several ways. Consolidations, she said, could free real estate that smaller companies could buy. She and Niedzolkowski also said that as consolidations create a plethora of undifferentiated stores, the smaller companies can grab the chance to set themselves apart with service, a different look, and maybe specialty products.
One trend that's accelerating elsewhere -- home-meal replacement -- hasn't taken off with much vigor in the Northeast, the NEFFA officials agreed.
"With just a couple of exceptions, I don't see anyone taking off and running with it here," Niedzolkowski said. He and Walker said HMR is just not a hot topic in the Northeast, especially not in New England. That's why meals solutions isn't on the program at the conference this week, Walker said.
But consolidation as well as other current and future trends will be discussed by keynote speaker Marvin Cetron, president of Forecasting International Ltd., on the first morning of the NEFFA's conference and expo.
Another session will focus on organic products, which Niedzolkowski said are part of an emerging trend, at least in New England. He offered as an example that most supermarket chains in that region have recently begun to dedicate sizable sections in their dairy cases to organic products.
The roster of educational seminars at the NEFFA show and expo includes one on organic meat and poultry and their effect on today's supermarket and consumer. Others will focus on artisan breads, electronic commerce, neutraceuticals and the state of the meat industry in the United States.
The show floor, which opens at noon Tuesday, April 13, will feature more than 300 exhibitors, Walker noted. And at the end of that afternoon, a NEFFA trade reception at the Seaport Hotel will give attendees another networking opportunity, she said.