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    INDEPENDENTS REPORT: Ideas for export

    A tour of a half-dozen great stores hosted by the Chicago-based Food Export Association Midwest-USA brought home the need to get the fundamentals right, but also change when you need to.

    Many U.S.-based grocery product producers facing slow growth domestically are looking abroad to developing nations, in an effort to boost top-line sales. Finding demand for U.S. products is relatively easy, but entering the export arena isn't easy for companies small or large, as many obstacles must be overcome to deliver those American-made products so much in demand.

    Food security and safety, product labeling, logistics and transportation, disparities in tariffs charged by countries -- these are all roadblocks to be maneuvered, and they keep companies wondering whether exporting is worth the effort.

    But in the Midwest, a leading food-producing area that provides one-third of the world's grain, as wells as fruits and vegetables, beans, livestock, and dairy products, many producers and manufacturers have an edge, thanks to the activities of the Food Export Association Midwest-USA, formerly known as MIATCO.

    A nonprofit organization that uses federal, state, and industry resources, the group sets forth its main purpose as to assist in promoting the export of U.S. food and agricultural products. In doing so, it organizes a number of unparalleled programs and events that bring together foreign buyers and U.S. suppliers, allowing them to explore export potential.

    One such event, The 2007 Food Export Midwest Buyers Mission, took place just weeks ago. Participating in the mission were 22 delegates -- buyers, if you will, from 17 countries -- Bermuda, Brazil, Canada, China, Costa Rica, France, India, Israel, Jamaica, Korea, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Turkey and Northern Cyprus, the United Kingdom, and Vietnam -- who convened for a weeklong series of meetings with the Food Export Association of the Midwest USA staff and Midwestern food exporters, and visits to leading food retailers operating in three major markets: Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; and Minneapolis.

    Honored to do so, I was invited to join the group, along with food industry expert and former IGA Global president Roger Romrell, upon the delegates' arrival in Ohio, and accompany them during their tour of six outstanding Columbus-area supermarkets. Those stores were:

    Buehler's Fresh Foods: Located on the outskirts of Columbus in the city of Delaware, Ohio, this conventional supermarket is recognized for its commitment to customer service and quality -- and the highlight of the tour was its people.

    As we were warmly welcomed by store director George Wisener -- a former Supervalu manager who relocated from Pittsburgh to Columbus to join the family-owned Buehler's organization nearly two years ago -- and the store's entire team of talented department managers, we were reminded of the theory that while supermarkets for the most part sell the same products and services, what differentiates one organization from another are associates.

    "The best thing about working at Buehler's," says Wisener, "is working with the Buehler's. I've never experienced anything like it during my long food industry career. They really and truly treat every associate like a member of the family."

    Costco: During my first visit to Costco, the world's No. 3 retailer, I was amazed at what I learned:

    --The store opens at 10 a.m., and shoppers typically wait in line for the doors to be unlocked.

    --Costco has enrolled over 48 million consumers as members. Membership fees alone generate revenue for the company in excess of $1.1 billion per year.

    --Some Wall Street analysts believe that the company treats its employees "too well." The retailer's average hourly wage is estimated at $17, about 40 percent higher than Wal-Mart's.

    --Costco sells approximately 4,000 SKUs at markups no higher than 14 percent.

    Giant Eagle: It was at this meticulously merchandised supermarket, located in Lewis Center, that the international delegates, along with executives from the Ohio Department of Agriculture, were treated to a gourmet lunch prepared by Chef Seth and hosted by Brewster, Ohio-based Shearer's Foods, a leading snack food manufacturer in the Midwest.

    Technology and innovation were the main topics of conversation during the working lunch, as delegates were eager to learn about Giant Eagle's leading-edge loyalty marketing program and data warehouse, "fuelperks!" gasoline program, the benefits of operating a lucrative gift card program, and the company's commitment to building strong supplier relationships.

    Wal-Mart Supercenter: Overwhelmed by the store's size, mammoth displays, and variety of food and nonfood products, the delegates nonetheless spent the most time shopping this store, particularly females who rushed to buy children's clothing, toys, hair care products, and more during our visit.

    After touring this Wal-Mart Supercenter, it was clear to me that the world's largest retailer is investing not only in technology, distribution, and real estate, but also in people.

    Identified as a training location, the store we visited employs two full-time, highly qualified "learning champions" responsible for implementing the division's management training program.

    Kroger Fresh Fare: When our bus arrived in the parking lot, the store signage on the building captured my attention, and I realized that this wasn't the same Kroger that my roommates and I frequented during our days at Ohio State.

    For one thing, bright-green letters spelled out the word "KROGER," vs. the traditional royal blue trimmed in white.

    Highlights of the fresh-focused store include a bakery where every pastry is a work of art, and a meat department with merchandising second to none. And it was at the Kroger Fresh Fare that we were introduced to perhaps one of the most talented meat department managers in the state. Her enthusiasm for the $66 billion Cincinnati-based retailer and commitment to her department and customers seemed, to me, unprecedented.

    Whole Foods: Our last stop of the day took place as consumers were shopping for dinner. As expected, the Whole Foods unit was packed with customers and employees of all ages who simply exuded good health: young moms with their preschoolers, an arty college student with dreadlocks who greeted every customer as he restocked the toasted coconut-covered marshmallows, and baby boomers lined up at the coffee bar and studying education pamphlets made available for customers throughout the store.

    And not once during the visit to Whole Foods did I observe customers discussing prices.

    As a consumer and writer, I was grateful for the invaluable opportunity to participate in the Midwest Buyers' Mission retail tours.

    Sure, it reminded me how much our industry and consumers have changed during the past couple of decades, but it also brought to mind the recent demise of a once thriving and well-respected food retailer, Big Bear, which had operated in Columbus since 1933, and whose logo for years millions of city dwellers watched fly high above the famous Ohio Stadium, home of the Big Ten Buckeyes.

    Today I'm sure folks who devoted years to working at that company and building the Big Bear brand would agree with this observation: "If you're doing business the same old way, it's probably not the right way."

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