Nonfoods Talk: Standing out in the crowd

Grocery Headquarters’ GM and HBC Trailblazer Awards are designed to help retailers identify potential hot products.   

Seth MendelsonMy older son graduated from high school in late June. I am proud to say that he will go to his dad’s alma mater, Syracuse University, in the fall. Right now, he has no declared major—probably a good idea for a confused 18-year-old—though I am a bit worried that he may become a bit too fond of the Orange football and basketball teams and not fond enough of the university’s library. Time will tell.

At the commencement, the valedictorian gave an excellent speech on standing out in a crowd. Trust me, it takes an excellent speech to get me to pay attention and this kid hit on all cylinders. The student said simply that our society has spent way too much time rewarding mediocrity and not enough time honoring the people that manage to stand above the competition.

He used the example of recreational soccer, where every kid, even those who rarely attend practices or games, gets a trophy at the end of the season for a job well done. Meanwhile, those who excel at their craft—whatever it is—are rarely identified for their abilities. Even honoring valedictorians, he noted, seem to be a thing of the past as many schools look to spread the honor of speaking in front of their graduating classes to more and more students.

The speech got me thinking about the supermarket and the abundance of products that flood the marketplace on an annual basis. Just recently, one nonfoods buyer told me that he estimates that more than 10,000 new items are introduced annually, all looking for space on his already-overcrowded shelves. Even as these new items become available, he is often fighting his supervisors to just hold on to the space he already gets for the nonfoods categories he manages. He says it takes the introduction of a new format for company brass to even consider expanding the nonfoods assortment.

Yet, the flood of new products is not what bothers this retail buyer. Instead, he says, it is the lack of innovation among the items that are being brought to market. Way too often, he says, suppliers simply imitate what is already out on the market with, usually, less expensive knock-offs that do nothing to build sales and profits for the retailer. “It’s like one guy does all the work with research and development and everyone else jumps on the bandwagon when the product hits paydirt,” he says. “It does not seem very fair for the guy who spent the money on R&D. More importantly, it does nothing for my business.”

Innovation and having something unique is the reason why Grocery Headquarters has expanded its annual Trailblazer Awards to include the health and beauty care and general merchandise categories. Starting with the June issue, where we profiled general merchandise companies and products that stand apart, and continuing this month with the HBC products and companies that make a difference, we have decided to honor some of the products and companies we believe can help retailers stand apart.

While we can show retailers which products stand out a bit, ultimately, they must make the decision on which ones to stock at their stores.

The onus, of course, is on the supplier. While offering a product that simply imitates a competitor may lead to short-term gain, they must understand that only introducing unique merchandise will pay off over the long term. Manufacturers need to be on the lookout for the next great thing, while realizing that just trying to introduce another me-too item does little to benefit anyone.


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