The supermarket industry is probably represented by too many trade associations for this era of re-engineering, company mergers and efficiency searches.
That's no more than an opinion, of course, but many in the industry think it contains more than a bit of truth. And it's an opinion well supported by this week's front page news about the National Association of Service Merchandising. NASM has looked around and decided this isn't the time to go it alone. It's seeking a new direction that includes efforts to partner with other trade associations, at the minimum. As Gary Ebben, NASM president, told SN, "We are investigating more actively than ever before synergies between ourselves and other organizations and we are talking to a number of organizations about possibilities."
Whenever activity such as that is afoot, it prompts the perennial question about the big three trade associations: Are they, too, thinking about the shrinking market and are they being asked by members to combine forces in some way?
Few trade association executives wax loquacious when it comes to such issues, but it doesn't do much harm to ask. So with that in mind, a couple of SN reporters contacted the Food Marketing Institute, the National-American Wholesale Grocers' Association and the National Grocers Association to see what executives of those organizations might say to the issue of whether some species of merger or partnership is in the wind.
Here's what each of the executives had to say, starting with Karen Brown, FMI's senior vice president: "It's true that as companies look internally and as they think about re-engineering, it's logical that they would ask their trade associations to go through the same process. However, these are not the kinds of discussions that can be carried out through the news media."
So be it. Now let's turn to John Block, NAWGA's president, to see what he has in mind: "From time to time, people talk with each other, but more to get things done. There's nothing in the wind at this moment, though anything can happen because of the activities of the industry itself.
"Associations have got to be seriously looking to end redundancies and provide the most efficient service to their members. Some members are in two or three different associations, and we've got to look at things like mergers.
"The NAWGA board is willing for us to look at these kinds of things. We've looked in the past at something with NGA, but other than the kind of discussions that always go on, there is no formal work being done. There's nothing at this moment to get excited about. The atmosphere is ripe for something to happen, but nothing is happening."
Jack Block's reference to the fact that NAWGA looked before to NGA concerns the long history of fruitless efforts to make a formal combination between those associations. The most recent such effort collapsed in March 1991 when a strategy calling for holding a joint convention and exhibition was rejected by NAWGA's board. NAWGA later discontinued its booth show. And what are the thoughts of Tom Zaucha, NGA's president and chief executive officer? "I would suggest that, as the industry continues to re-engineer and restructure itself, everyone is looking for ways to do things more efficiently in terms of consolidating programs, services and meetings. That's part of our ongoing objective. But to suggest something formal is occurring is premature.
"Relationships are extremely positive right now among associations, especially from our perspective. It's my impression that people recognize each group has established a certain niche of services and they are asking themselves how they can help maximize those services by being cooperative."
So there are the positions of the executives of these major trade associations. Take the comments, the burden of history and industry trends as you see fit, but I sense that there is something in the wind that will lead to more combinations of trade associations, or of their activities.