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    INDEPENDENTS REPORT: School for retail

    Even the bright lights of the independent community had plenty to learn at last month's bustling NGA convention.

    Boasting record attendance for the fourth straight year, this year's Supermarket Synergy Showcase, S3 for short, attracted retailers both small and large that appreciate, and for obvious reasons support, NGA's efforts to preserve diversity in competition and consumer choice in an industry increasingly dominated by national chains.

    "Despite industry change and the rush to bigness, NGA believes that community-focused retailers, armed with the right tools and services, are positioned to grow their companies, says NGA president and c.e.o. Tom Zaucha.

    The NGA event was packed with opportunities to learn, offering attendees more than 30 cutting-edge educational workshops, including a daylong financial management symposium sponsored by FMS and National Cooperative Bank; four general sessions featuring presentations from some of the nation's most respected thought leaders, among them political columnist George F. Will, foreign policy adviser Fareed Zakaria, and PepsiCo president and c.f.o. Indra Nooyi; and a sold-out show floor.

    "We came to NGA with great expectations, and we're thrilled with all we've learned," says Mike Parker, a two-store operator from Lindstrom, Minn. "The financial symposium was outstanding and gave us lots of ideas on how to re-engineer ourselves."

    Parker says his greatest challenges are the increasing costs of operations and keeping pace with the changing demographics in his market.

    "We're located in a third-tier suburb of St. Paul/Minneapolis, and in the past we typically served lower-income customers," he explains. "What's happening now is many people are moving from the cities to our area. These folks expect a lot more out of their local supermarket. We're striving to meet the needs of both low-income customers and the wealthy."

    His response is to promote the store's Angus Beef program, 3,000 natural/organic products, and numerous signature items such as Bud's Swedish Sausage. Parker also recently added catering services, and business is better than ever.

    He adds: "We're doing what we can to be creative and differentiate from the mass merchants. Sure, it's a tough road for the small independent, because we must do it all. NGA has helped me along the way to wear many hats."

    Operating not far from Parker is Kevin Brink, co-owner of Brink's Market in Chisago City, Minn. A single-store conventional merchant, Brink and his brother, Roger, pride themselves on providing exceptional customer service and strong perishable departments.

    He says: "NGA is a perfect venue for us because we like the way the organization focuses on smaller independents. Attending the convention always reminds me to keep my eyes and ears open to new ideas and to be a good listener."

    Tom Robinson, co-president of Carter's Food Centers, a 16-store employee-owned chain in Charlotte, Mich., has his own objectives, and the convention has armed him to make progress in pursuing them. "My primary reason for attending this year's convention was to participate in the financial symposium and to better understand various health care concepts for our associates," says Robinson. "We've been self-insured since 1986 and we're constantly looking for ways to improve our health plan. Interesting to me was how many companies are now layering into their programs wellness benefits to not only assist their employees, but also to better control premiums."

    Jerry and Scott Miller, the father and son who own Indianola, Miss.-based Sunflower Food Store, believe attending NGA teaches them to more effectively compete against the mass merchants by offering new and improved products and services, and to better understand emerging store formats.

    Says Scott Miller, "We came here to learn more about the popular limited-assortment formats such as Save-A-Lot that are providing new growth opportunities for independents, plus we want to make sure we're on top of our game as far as providing the best possible customer service in the industry."

    For Cristy and Nada Spoa of Ellwood City, Pa., NGA is a priceless learning opportunity. The Spoas, whose company was founded in 1917 by Costa Spoa, Cristy's father, are industry stalwarts, and highly respected in retail circles.

    Says Cristy Spoa: "The sessions were very well done. That's why Nada and I both attend different ones during the convention -- we don't want to miss out on anything that's important to our business. This year our goal is to implement at least six new ideas in our store when we return."

    Geared up and ready to enhance the operation of Findlay, Ohio-based Fresh Encounter, Inc. is district manager Rich Dunlavy. "As you might imagine, we face a number of challenges, including controlling operating costs, meeting customer demands in the face of payroll restructuring, and competing with the big guys," he says.

    "After 32 years in this business, I've realized that you can never stop learning," Dunlavy continues. "The speakers here were great, and I was able to learn from others who share my everyday concerns. I'm eager to participate again next year."

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