WSL Future of Health Event

FMI: A group on the rebound

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Last month’s Food Marketing Institute show in Las Vegas was a difficult event to evaluate.

Last month’s Food Marketing Institute show in Las Vegas was a difficult event to evaluate.

On the one hand, there was certainly lots going on — meetings, presentations, multiple exhibits by a range of suppliers and the very visible presence and participation of Leslie Sarasin, the association’s impressive new leader.

On the other hand, the show was longer on potential than on its ability to deliver on that

The event, like the association that mounted it, is very much a work in progress. It is currently mired in its Eliza Doolittle period. In other words, it knows how to speak but has not yet necessarily grasped what to say.

On the positive side, the meeting was full of energy, purpose and promise, and the association’s staff, once as moribund as the organization it represented, emerged with a positive and reenergized approach to the meeting and the attendees. Of particular interest was the focus on health and wellness, a hot supermarket topic that the industry’s leading grocery chains have latched onto in a big way.

As well, there appears to be a renewed interest in the shopper. FMI research and several significant presentations highlighted the fact that shopper attitudes and behavior patterns with regard to supermarkets are changing, with the result that America’s supermarkets face both a challenge and an opportunity.

On a personal note, Delhaize’s supermarket chains in the United States, most notably Hannaford Bros. and Food Lion, received the Network of Executive Women’s Champion Award, one normally given to an individual.

The exhibit show that grounded the event had much to offer to those retailers willing to spend time on the convention floor. As usual with these events, however, only the curious and the committed had the wit to do so, with the result that the usual supplier complaints about lack of retailer participation were often

This event, however, provided further evidence that FMI is clearly an association on the rebound from the obscurity and threatened extinction that surrounded it as recently as two years ago. The return trip to respectability will be made easier by these attributes:

• The emergence of Leslie Sarasin, a dynamic leader who combines presence, purpose and a serious and substantive agenda that puts the industry’s needs first, the association’s second. What’s clearly still missing is a staff of the depth and experience that can be found in some other trade organizations, most notably the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. The FMI staffers on hand are clearly competent and committed. There are simply not enough of them.

• A roster of regional grocery chains that collectively provides the association with its biggest asset. Simply put, no retailers exist in any trade class to rival the ubiquitous excellence of such regional supermarket chains as Publix, Winn-Dixie, H.E.B., Weg­mans, Food Lion, Stop & Shop, Giant Food and Weis Markets. At the very top of this impressive roster is Hy-Vee, clearly the most impressive retailer the U.S. supermarket industry has seen in some time. As well as FMI’s most committed member, this Iowa-based regional grocery chain has emerged as simply the best supermarket operator in America. Larger, more dominant food retailers than Hy-Vee can be found, but no retailer anywhere in the country is more committed to excellence than this Iowa food chain — and no retailer in any trade class has come closer to perfection in its quest to put the customer first.

What is FMI’s biggest challenge going forward? Securing a commitment from its two largest retail members: Kroger and Safeway.

As an analogy, NACDS succeeds to a great degree because two of its most important retail members, Walgreens and CVS Caremark, are totally committed to the association. They are represented on the NACDS board — and routinely attend NACDS board meetings. They unfailingly send their senior staffers to the association’s Annual Meeting, and their merchants and pharmacists to its front-end and pharmacy conferences.

By contrast, Kroger and Safeway are at best reluctant participants in FMI. Their senior managers still labor under the delusion that their businesses will remain safe from competition if only they can keep their mouths shut and not tell the competition what they’re thinking or doing.

Perhaps they don’t grasp the plain fact of things in retailing: Anyone who wants to know what’s going on need only walk the stores. It’s what retailers do — and will always do. It’s the industry’s favorite exercise.

Until the senior managers at Safeway and Kroger get past this antiquated and myopic view of retailing and business, until they begin to understand just who they are and what they mean to the supermarket industry, and, most important, until they begin to grasp the reality of a grocery industry that is bigger and more important than even its two biggest members, FMI will continue to operate with one hand tied behind its back.

And that’s no way to run a trade association — or an industry.


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