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    INDEPENDENTS REPORT: A sense of community

    Enthusiastic participants have gained a lot more than fond memories from this year's NGA convention.

    A renewed feeling of energy. The opportunity to better understand today's changing consumer. A real commitment to family-owned supermarkets. These are just a few of the phrases used to describe this year's National Grocers Association convention, which took place in early February in glitzy Las Vegas.

    Convening at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel, NGA's Supermarket Synergy Showcase -- S3" for short -- aimed to provide a forum to link cutting-edge education sessions with a sold-out interactive show floor.

    "When all was said and done, a true sense of community prevailed," NGA s.v.p. Frank DiPasquale says. "We achieved this year's goals in that we enhanced collaboration within the industry by helping our members better understand the importance of the consumer in their businesses, while tackling the issues directly related to efficiency and cost. By all accounts, we believe that this year's show, which was extremely laser-focused and specific, was our best ever."

    Impressive dedication

    Bill Benzing, e.v.p. and chief growth officer at IGA, Inc., agrees. "I'm extremely impressed with NGA's dedication to the independent grocer," he says. "Several of our IGA retailers participated in the show, and most were there for different reasons. Some were interested in the education sessions, while others took part in the business partner trading sessions. The emotional quotient, which is hard to measure, was that everyone, regardless of size, had the opportunity to rub shoulders with colleagues who are fighting the same fight. From that, retailers learned what can really be done in their stores to be, for the consumer, a better provider of goods and services."

    "Having been around this business for 42 years," Benzing adds, "it's satisfying to know that there's an organization out there that continues to champion the independent. NGA reaffirmed that it's helping the family-owned supermarket politically, economically, and practically. I believe that the sense of community that has evolved will open up even more windows for future success."

    Recharged drive

    Retailer Mike Needler, NGA's outgoing chairman, is living proof that independents can enjoy success in a fiercely competitive market. Just two weeks after returning home from the convention, Needler and his talented staff increased their competitive arsenal by acquiring four additional stores. The family now operates 35 supermarkets in Ohio and Indiana.

    "Serving as chairman of NGA really changed my perspective on the future of independent supermarket operators," Needler says. "Of course, I wouldn't have accepted the job without knowing that our team at Fresh Encounter was capable of maintaining our operation and momentum. Seeing firsthand NGA's commitment to the survival of businesses like ours was huge. As a result our family business has a recharged entrepreneurial drive at the third-generation level.

    "We also have a renewed passion to be the community-focused independent in each of the fine communities we're privileged to serve," Needler continues. "Certainly our presence brings diversity to each marketplace. That's good for us -- and it's good for consumers."

    Connecting with consumers in Broadway, N.C. is paramount for Piggly Wiggly storeowners Greg and Nancy Adams. "The Hispanic culture continues to grow in our rural market, and NGA's ethnic marketing programs have helped us to better understand and take advantage of this opportunity," Greg Adams says. "By meeting the needs of this new customer, our store, which is supplied by Nash Finch, has enjoyed a 40 percent sales increase during the past three years."

    'Smart investment'

    While the couple awarded high marks to NGA overall, Nancy Adams, a former software engineer, shared one suggestion to improve the event. "I feel retailers would benefit by having additional software and technology exhibits on the show floor," she said. "Technology continues to drive our business in many areas -- inventory control, loss prevention, and so forth. Plus it would be helpful to learn new ways to integrate existing programs without having to invest a slew of money."

    "A smart investment" is how Gary Peacock, g.m. of Indiana-based Covington Foods, describes S3. "NGA has truly become the voice for independent retailers," Peacock says. "Even though the exhibit hall wasn't huge, I left this year's convention with more positive contacts than ever before. NGA had the right people at the show -- not just the most."

    Peacock continues: "I have 11 pages of notes that I continue to share with our management team. That alone should tell you the value of attending the event."

    So how did wholesalers and manufacturers fare at S3? "It was interesting to witness the change in focus that occurred from the retail perspective at NGA in just one year," says Joe Himmelheber, director of merchandising for Indianapolis-based Caito Foods. "Last year it seemed that most seminars were geared toward the onslaught of supercenters. This year, in a more positive approach, a significant number of the presentations dealt with healthy lifestyles and how successful retailers must gear their marketing to address consumer lifestyle needs."

    Especially helpful, Himmelheber notes, were the presentations addressing ethnic marketing. "Although fresh fruits and vegetables are the foundation to success in this area, it's vital to understand what other store departments, particularly meat, bakery, and deli, need to accomplish to maximize ethnic sales."

    For his part, McCormick & Co.'s Anthony Tuccillo, v.p. of national accounts and trade relations, says the investment in attending the NGA event was well worth it. "Independents are a big part of our business," Tuccillo says. "By exhibiting at the show, we gain direct one-to-one access to decision-makers."

    Raising the bar

    Through his participation in NGA, Tuccillo says the trade association helps him "stay on top of the real challenges facing our industry, such as out-of-channel competition, rising health care costs, employee retention, consumer lifestyle changes, and others. Plus it provides a venue for McCormick to show our ongoing appreciation to retailers. Each year we sponsor the NGA board luncheon and host a dinner party for our customers. We view NGA as an opportunity to develop new relationships and maintain those that have helped us become a market leader."

    Based on positive reviews, NGA may find it hard to beat this year's show. But, according to DiPasquale, the group remains committed to doing just that. "We must continue to raise the bar for ourselves and for our members," he says. "We'll encourage independents to think outside the box in the areas of technology, value retailing, ethnic and urban marketing, and fresh and prepared foods. These are all areas in which community-focused retailers can create significant points of difference in their operations and determine what will take them into the next 10 years."

    Independent Retailing editor Jane Olszeski Tortola can be reached at [email protected].

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