Retailers, upbeat on economy, glean lessons from FMI Show
LAS VEGAS — With the economy and their businesses improving, attendees at the Food Marketing Institute's now-every-other-year trade show last week were generally upbeat about the proceedings, each finding something of value to bring back to their company.
“I was struck by the return of energy around collaboration,” said Marianne Timmons, vice president, supply chain and global business to business, Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y. “I'm seeing the barriers between retailers and suppliers and between retailers and other retailers coming down. Before people were just focused on top-line growth but now they're trying to take it to the next level.”
After decades of attending the FMI Show in Chicago, retailers are still adjusting to coming to other locales such as Las Vegas, where the event shifted two years ago for the first time. Timmons said she liked the change. “Here there's more of an opportunity for conversation than there was in Chicago,” she said.
The change from an annual to an every-other-year format for the trade show (including both workshops and exhibitors) also drew praise from one executive from a large East Coast chain, who asked not to be identified. He said he appreciates the new schedule because one tends to see new items and not the same old thing from year to year. It is also more cost effective for companies to send staff every other year.
He also endorsed the “Feeding Families and Enriching Lives” slogan announced by FMI during the Speaks presentation. “The family unit is changing and this [concept] is a good thing in my opinion.”
Mark Batenic, president and chief executive officer, IGA USA, said he found the right people attended this FMI show, and they are leaving with new ideas. “The mood was positive and upbeat,” said, adding that new leadership within major trade associations is also making “an impactful difference.”
J. Michael Brown, director of IT store systems, Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, Calif., said the two keynote speakers — Dr. Stephen Covey and adventurer Erik Weihenmayer — were the best he has heard in a long time. He also liked the fact that FMI diverted a bit from its traditional Speaks presentation and assembled a panel of retail consultants to react to the statistical trends. He also found the audience opinion poll through the electronic devices a novel approach.
The FMI Show this year included a significant technology component as it absorbed the workshops and exhibitors that previously comprised its Marketechnics event. Brown's goal was to leverage the opportunity to look for new technology that would make his operation more efficient and better serve shoppers.
Another IT executive, Aashish Chandra, senior director of IT and Enterprise PMO, Save Mart Supermarkets, who accepted the chain's Technology Excellence Award from SN at the show, was also seeking technology ideas. “My chief purpose is to ensure that I take back business capabilities we can leverage using technology,” he said. “There are several service providers here demonstrating their products and I am interested in seeing what they have to offer that can help Save Mart sell more meat, produce and groceries. So whatever the economy, we can get ahead of the curve.”
Dar Hackbarth, senior manager of marketing for software vendor Retalix, Plano, Texas, said longtime Marketechnics exhibitors like Retalix “see the evolution of the show and are here on that voyage.” He said the company's experience on the exhibit floor was “very productive,” adding that more Retalix executives than ever before were attending the show.
FOCUS ON HEALTH
FMI scheduled its Supermarket Health & Wellness Conference to run in sync with and following the main show. Many of the 100 or so pharmacists, dietitians and nutritionists as well as suppliers attending the welcoming Health and Wellness reception, hosted by FMI, expressed enthusiasm for the conference and the focus FMI was giving health and wellness topics.
“There is lots of information and fabulous meetings resulting in future ideas,” commented Deborah Rojas, wellness manager, United Supermarkets, Lubbock, Texas, who was attending the show for the first time.
Mickey Blazer, pharmacy operations manager, K-VA-T, Abingdon, Va., was also attending for the health and wellness content, including workshops within the main show. “We've found everything very informative so far,” he said, after attending the “Building Health and Wellness Through Ethnic Marketing” and “Emerging Best Practices for the Healthy Weight Commitment Initiative” workshops.
Blazer said he hopes to take away “some perspective on what our counterparts are doing.” Meanwhile, new technologies demonstrated on the show floor and shelving display units caught his eye.
Skipper Jones, owner of 10 Piggly Wiggly stores, is getting ready to open his 11th store, so he is in search of new equipment, but he's always on the lookout for new food items.
“If something catches my eye in the Kraft booth, for instance, I might go back and say, ‘Why don't we have that yet?’”
Rogers Campbell, director of the Eastern Region for the Defense Commissary Agency, Fort Lee, Va., was checking out FMI with an eye on energy-efficient equipment for his agency, which operates supermarkets on U.S. military bases with total annual sales of $6 billion.
“FMI is a good opportunity to network and see what's on the top of mind of all retailers,” Campbell said. “I'm especially interested in knowing what's going on with regards to green equipment and the supply chain.
“I think a lot of the good ideas I got here I got from the exhibitors, especially with regard to environmentally friendly refrigeration and some of the advances they have made there.”
Daniel Ortmann, perishable coordinator, Mega Foods, Eau Claire, Wis., was looking for new products and equipment such as patty makers, rotisseries and deep fryers for meat, deli and bakery departments.
Several attendees said they were at FMI to learn more about better serving changing demographics. Denise R. Thomas, director of supplier diversity for Kroger, Cincinnati, was preparing a presentation on supplier diversity and chatting with counterparts for their ideas as well. “There seems to me to be a lot of innovation out there. I've seen a lot of great ideas,” Thomas said.
Kathryn Mazon, senior business development leader for Target, Minneapolis, said the retailer is “looking at store segmenting and being sure that we have the right product for the diverse customer base, and filling in any gaps there might be.”
BUSY SHOW FLOOR
Many FMI Show attendees see their sales improving as the economy gradually strengthens. “We're happy with how the business is going,” said Wegmans' Timmons.
Steve Williams, a manager for Hussmann, said traffic on the trade show floor indicated that business was improving strongly. Hussmann, Bridgeton, Mo., makes fresh food display and refrigeration equipment.
“I think the business looks very good for the near future, and for the long term,” he said. “The traffic we had yesterday was incredible.”
Chad Romer, retail supervisor for Hy-Vee, West Des Moines, Iowa, who was attending his first FMI Show, described traffic on the exhibit floor as “unbelievable” during the first few hours. He was optimistic the business climate would remain positive.
But other retailers, like Ortmann of Mega Foods, were hedging their bets. He is hopeful the economy will continue its upswing, but said retailers need to stay aggressive on certain categories. Mega Foods was going to try to keep the business gained from restaurants during the recession.
Brown said the economy will remain tough in certain parts of the country. For example, in the Central Valley region in California, water shortages threaten the local economy. “The economy will not pick up the same across the country,” he said. “Different regions are going through difficult times. It is a tough battle.”
Brown warned that food retailers should not let down their guard now that restaurant sales have begun to pick up. “You have to prioritize and you need a unified vision,” he said.
Jones of Piggly Wiggly said sales are now in a flat stage because his stores are in Louisiana where the recession hit much later.
On the pharmacy side, “I'd say business is holding its own,” said Don Clark, vice president of pharmacy operations for K-VA-T. “Last year, the pharmacy arena was interesting. Health care initiatives continue to change, but pharmacy is stabilizing and moving forward.”
Additional reporting by Jon Springer, Julie Gallagher, Christina Veiders and David Orgel
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