It was the end of an era: The last of the traditional, annual Food Marketing Institute supermarket shows was held last month in Chicago. It's been my favorite show for 15 years now, but apparently it's becoming less popular with you food manufacturers, because a lot of big names were missing this year (see our Newsline story).
That's a pity, because it was one of the few events where food processors could come face to face with their immediate customers, the retailers. Unfortunately, that hasn't been the case for years. Fewer and fewer food company executives made the show, instead sending their marketing and customer service people.
Dick Bond, CEO of Tyson Foods, attended last year, and Don Tyson himself was there the year before. This year, Rick Searer, president of Kraft North America, wanted you to believe he was there. His "avatar" (ask your kids what that means) was part of the "virtual supermarket" demonstration by Kraft. I couldn't tell if he was doing the computer-generated demo live from his office or on tape; either way, it left me cold. Nothing takes the place of personal contact.
To be fair, I don't think grocery executives attend anymore either. Nevertheless, I was able to buttonhole a few grocers in the aisles of the FMI show, and I asked them what food processors could do to help them sell more of your products. Organic, of course, was mentioned by several. "Our organic lineup is growing. It's all over the store," said Louis Luderman of Woodman's Foods in Kenosha, Wis. Mark Ossege of Dillonvale (Cincinnati) IGA lamented, "I've seen so many interesting items in the Fancy Food and Organic Shows [shows co-located with the FMI show] that I wish I could get. I know I could sell them, but I can't get them. And we're in Cincinnati!"
But not everyone was sold on organics. "My customers are moving toward natural foods, not all the way to organic, not yet anyway," countered Ron Edenfield of Wayfield Foods, Atlanta. "Organic at this point is still is a small fraction of my store. It's growing, but not as fast as most people say."
"I think the big food companies could provide us with more cut, bagged and otherwise more convenient produce items," said James Spilka, who is in the produce dept. at the Grand Rapids, Mich., headquarters of superstore chain Meijer Inc. "I see people still wanting to cook at home, but looking for more step-savers, and this is one of their biggest demands."
"The private label manufacturers need to improve their R&D. For a long time they kept pace with the big branded companies, but I think they're falling behind," said Kathy Oakes of grocery distributor Topco Associates, Skokie, Ill. "I'm sure they don't want to put the R&D into a product before the market is proven, but now I think they're waiting too long and the market is either saturated or it's moved on to the next trend. We both missed the opportunity to make some good money."
"I wish product manufacturers could come up with a better system for nutrition information, one that would be easier for consumers to understand," said Steve Smith of K-VA-T/Food City stores in Abingdon, Va. "I don't think my shoppers are getting the new Food Pyramid. Manufacturers should develop some standards and logos and icons to define what is low calorie, low sodium, gluten-free, et cetera."
"Also better information on how to prepare foods," added John Jones of the same grocery chain. "I think more people are returning to cooking, with the price of gas and food scares in restaurant chains. But they never learned how to cook."
And there are the recurrent themes I hear every year from these grocers.
"I think they're doing a good job of manufacturing products, but I'd like to see more customer service, more contact with these people," said Steve Busch of Hy-Vee Markets, West Des Moines, Iowa. "If you're not a 100,000-sq.-ft. store, they neglect you."
"Everything's driven by price. They've got to take more costs out of the system to lower their prices," said James Wright of Wright's Markets, Opalaka, Ala.
OK, take that last one with a grain of salt ... lower-priced salt, to be sure. But I'll be curious to see if the FMI show replacements -- FMI Plus Marketechnics or the FMI Leadership Education Forum -- can establish the valuable dialog between processors and grocers.