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    Independents at the NGA Convention in Las Vegas were in luck: The meeting bristled with energy and ideas.

    Wholesaler consolidation, fierce competition from national and global chains, skyrocketing health care costs, and the struggle to differentiate -- these are among the many challenges facing today's independent grocers, whether you're a single-store operator like Christy and Nada Spoa from Ellwood City, Pa.; 65-store, employee-owned Niemann Foods, based in Quincy, Ill.; or award-winning, 102-store Schnuck Markets, headquartered in St. Louis.

    In any case, independent grocers nationwide are indeed fortunate to be served by an organization devoted to their growth and prosperity, as well as to increasing consumer choice within the supermarket industry: the National Grocers Association (NGA).

    Boasting record-breaking attendance at its annual trade show last month, at the popular Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Convention Center, NGA proved once again to be unwavering in its support of privately held supermarkets, and in its ongoing efforts to create a level playing field for all operators regardless of size or purchasing power.

    The energy level was high at the convention. Former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani captivated the audience at the opening general session. Now an entrepreneur working in the private sector, author of the best-selling book "Leadership," and a possible contender for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, Giuliani presented a gripping account of his reactions to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

    "Great leaders, whether in government or business, must first determine their own weaknesses and learn how to balance those weaknesses with the strength of other people," said Giuliani, who in 2001 was named Time magazine's Man of The Year.

    He added, "My best advice on leadership is really quite simple. You've got to be there for your people when things are going wrong -- it's much more important than being there when things are going right."

    Spurred by Giuliani's speech, I began to reflect on how NGA president and c.e.o. Tom Zaucha, his energetic staff, and the NGA board of directors have selflessly provided direction and leadership to independent retailers and their associates during our industry's most challenging times.

    In the offices of our nation's capital, the Arlington, Va.-based NGA capably represents the best interests of its constituency regarding the repeal/reduction of estate taxes, labor and food safety regulations, product labeling, and many other issues.

    Furthermore, through its nonprofit Grocers Research and Education Foundation (GREF), NGA serves our industry by improving productivity in all key areas of operations, and providing the latest research findings to its members as well as the industry as a whole. Additionally, its nationwide marketing arm, the National Grocers Association Service Corp. (NGASC), founded in 1995, provides members access to cost-effective technology, equipment, fixtures, financing, and efficiency programs that are vital to increasing sales, net profits, and market share.

    But, according to the many members with whom I've spoken in recent months, what independents appreciate most is NGA's commitment to education. Last month's convention certainly was no exception, featuring a variety of renowned business experts ranging from financial journalist Stuart Varney, who shared his global perspective on why bigger isn't always best, to NBC's Today show food critic and Progressive Grocer contributing editor Phil Lempert, who discussed how aggressive retailers are successfully responding to current consumer trends.

    Each midday general session was flanked by a host of hourlong workshops providing insight into topics including supermarket valuation and trends in the family business, developing brands that resonate with Hispanic consumers, and making the pet care customer key to regaining center store sales.

    "This year's workshops were designed to provide methods by which our members can create a competitive advantage, increase market share, be relevant, align products and services to customer needs, use a community-focused communication strategy, and, finally, create a reason for consumers to shop with them," said NGA chairman Gary Phillips, president and c.e.o. of Associated Wholesale Grocers of Kansas City, Kan.

    There's little doubt that NGA itself is practicing what it preaches, not only at its convention, but also every day of the year. By focusing exclusively on the needs of the independent sector, the organization has created a powerful niche among food trade associations. And by all indications, NGA's share of the membership market continues to climb.

    Independent Retailing Editor Jane Olszeski Tortola can be reached at JanieOT@aol.com.

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