The 41-year-old trade association connects with members and prospective members via Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
By Nora Caley
When the Global Market Development Center (GMDC) hosts its Health Beauty Wellness (HBW) Marketing Conference in Phoenix on Sept. 9-11, there will be a great deal of note taking, questions and follow-up. That is if first-time attendees follow the advice found in GMDC’s “What to Expect at Your First GMDC Marketing Conference,” a video the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based trade association posted on its website and on YouTube. More information can also be found on GMDC’s Facebook page and on Twitter.Dave McConnell, GMDC president and chief executive officer, says the group embraces the newest technologies, marketing strategies and trends. “We are an organization that’s committed to change,” McConnell says. “There are some in the association world that are hesitant to do so, but our mindset is we need to be relevant today. We can’t just rest on our past laurels.”
It might be tempting for an association whose membership includes more than 125 wholesalers and retailers and 650 general merchandise and health and beauty wellness suppliers to rest on its laurels. Over the years GMDC has become known for its conferences, research and education. Today the association is still known for these and is constantly updating its offerings to members.
In 1970, executives from Grand Rapids, Mich.-based grocery supplier and retailer Spartan Stores and other wholesalers and distributors formed what was then called the General Merchandise Distributors Council. They had not been allowed to join the existing trade associations. “They didn’t have access to senior executives of consumer product goods manufacturers that they needed to work with to build their programs,” McConnell says.
The new association held its first marketing conference in Dallas in 1971. McConnell, who joined the association in 1980 and became its president in 2000, says the main issue at the first conference was similar to the issues the nonfoods industry faces now. Food retailers needed to strengthen their assortments in general merchandise and what was then called health and beauty aids, or HABA.
Instead of offering the typical conference format of seminars, exhibitors’ booths and logo-encrusted pen giveaways, GMDC leadership came up with the Controlled Casual Conference (CCC) format. With CCC, wholesalers and retailers host one or more tables in a large ballroom, where suppliers and service companies schedule 10- or 20-minute appointments.. Attendees can schedule meetings online.
McConnell says GMDC was the first to use the tabletop format. “The format has been copied, but never totally replicated, all over the industry,” he says. “There have been attempts where they used the format but they used booths and it didn’t work, so they went back to the tabletop format.”
In 2004, GMDC added Showcase, a room where attendees could see new products displayed. A year later the association introduced the Senior Executive Conferences, meetings that last up to 40 minutes and were intended to be strategic meetings, while the CCC meetings are more tactical, order-taking meetings.
Today GMDC hosts two annual conferences, the General Merchandise Marketing Conference in the spring and the Health Beauty and Wellness Marketing Conference in the fall. Beginning in 2013, the General Merchandise Marketing Conference will move to the fall and the Health Beauty and Wellness Marketing Conference will move to the spring.
The move, which the GMDC board approved in early August, is a switch back to how the conferences were scheduled before 1999. That year the conference dates were moved to make it easier for GMDC members who also attended the National Association of Chain Drug Stores (NACDS) meeting to also attend GMDC’s Health and Beauty Care Conference, as it was then called. McConnell says GMDC is switching back to General Merchandise in the fall and Health Beauty and Wellness in the spring because NACDS, which he calls “a friendly competitor,” will switch from three annual conferences to one Marketplace event in August 2013.
Flip-flopping the meetings might help with the timing of some product launches. For example, industry representatives can talk about cough and cold remedies in the spring. Also, the hope is people can attend spring, summer and fall nonfoods events and GMDC can even invite other associations, McConnell says. “We would love to see the Food Marketing Institute [FMI] and their pharmacy conference be located in the same venue. We co-located with FMI in 2009 very successfully, when we were in the fall timeframe for Health Beauty and Wellness.”
Collaboration with other associations is a focal point for GMDC. There are many events nationwide throughout the year and it’s difficult for industry representatives to attend all conferences. McConnell hopes GMDC can work with other associations. He says one effort that worked well occurred last year, when GMDC partnered with the National Grocers Association to present a webinar to address how the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will change Flexible Spending Accounts and over the counter purchase eligibility.
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These educational efforts also have a long history and have been changed to adapt to membership needs. In 1976, GMDC unveiled its first industry survey at that year’s conference. Over the years many more studies have explored consumer behaviors and industry best practices. McConnell says some studies were ahead of their time. In the 1980s there was a 1 will get you 5 study on incremental sales in retailers’ nonfoods sections. In the 1990s there were studies on consumers taking control of, and buying products for, their own health. The research is designed to help GMDC members handle ongoing challenges, such as how to adapt to new retail competition and consumers’ changing demands. “Retailers and wholesalers must clearly define the space and categories that they want to be known for,” says Keith Wypyszynski, vice president of business development and chief member officer. “In many cases retail members are not getting credit for either the price/value they offer or product availability.”
He says members are dealing with shifting consumer demographics and evolving expectations. That means retailers have to figure out, for example, whether to carry iPads as well as DVDs in the electronics aisle, how to reach shoppers on Facebook and on their smartphonesand how to reconfigure seasonal aisles to attract the Hispanic market during certain holidays.
In the health and wellness category, GMDC continues to find out how consumer preferences change and how retailers and wholesalers can adapt. “Health and wellness consumers evolve,” Wypyszynski says. “It’s very important to keep that evolution in mind when constructing health and wellness retail strategies. It’s not good enough to think about consumers and their preferences as they exist today. You must be thinking about where they are going, and accommodating the next steps they will make.”
One of GMDC’s more recent reports, “Consumer Shopping Habits for Wellness and Environmentally Conscious Lifestyles,” found that consumers are interested in some, but not all, health and wellness-related personal care products. “We have observed many consumers that have gotten stuck with their deodorant, and while they use other categories of products that are much further along the health and wellness product path of all natural, specialty skin care products, they continue to use a conventional brand of deodorant,” Wypyszynski says. Another finding was that consumers become puzzled if they find health and wellness personal care SKUs in the organic food section in a grocery store. Still another was that some consumers have stopped using some home cleaners due to worries about chemicals, and have moved to using homemade solutions such as vinegar and water for cleaning.
What do these findings mean? “There are opportunities for manufacturers and retailers to fill the gaps in certain categories, to provide and structure pathways for evolving consumers or to simply retain them in the categories,” Wypyszynski says.
Just as its members have adapted to a changing target audience, so has GMDC. It has expanded membership to include service merchandisers, non-direct-buying supermarket chains, club stores and all mass market wholesale and retail channels. “If we had held the line on that we wouldn’t be in business today,” McConnell says.
Officials at GMDC say the organization has continuously adapted to changes in the marketplace. Beginning in 2002, GMDC began paying airfare and lodging expenses for qualifying wholesale and retail companies to attend the conferences. Retailer and wholesaler attendance increased 45% at the General Merchandise Marketing Conference and 27% at the Health and Beauty Care Marketing Conference.
In 2007, GMDC rebranded itself the Global Market Development Center. Last year, the association restructured its Board of Directors and its advisory boards to include executives from wholesale, retail and supplier members.
The association even survived location changes that were unrelated to its work. In its early days, GMDC was based in Dayton, Ohio. In 1974 Rick Tilton succeeded Robert Keats and became the nonprofit’s second executive director. As part of the hiring process, Tilton negotiated for the right to move GMDC to another city if he was able to stabilize the then financially shaky association. As GMDC doesn’t get involved in lobbying or regulatory work, he chose Colorado Springs over Washington, D.C. once the organization’s financial situation improved.
The focus, McConnell says, is still on education. In September, during the Health Beauty and Wellness Marketing Conference, GMDC will present results of a health and wellness study it conducted with The Hartman Group, a Bellevue, Wash.-based consumer research firm. GMDC is also finishing a general merchandise study with Radian, a Minneapolis-based consulting group.
“The educational piece is how we differentiate ourselves,” McConnell says.