Talking Shop with… Leslie G. Sarasin

Leslie G. Sarasin, FMI President and CEO, says FMI Connect will serve as a consistent, more available resource to inspire creative thinking among food retailers.

Talk about the state of the grocery industry.
Leslie G. Sarasin: The supermarket has become the pulse checkpoint on the heartbeat LeslieSarasinFMIof the world as all of us realize, wrestle with and sometimes revel in the realities of living in the Information Age. All the issues confronting our society—economic trends, shifting corporate landscapes, the impact of the Affordable Care Act and the revolution technology brings to the way we relate to each other—are in play at the grocery store.

Arguably, the most influential of these is how social media has enhanced the consumers’ purchasing power. Digital communication results in shoppers not simply voting with their wallets, but also being given a public format to broadcast opinions and experiences—affording them direct access to decision makers. Fortunately, the food retail industry’s deep roots in customer service are keeping us grounded in the fertile soil of shopper sensitivity, as these winds of change are blowing. The food retail industry remains steadfast in its commitment to feeding families and enriching lives by giving shoppers the highest quality products, when, how and through whatever channel they prefer it. FMI looks forward to helping our food retailer and wholesaler members not just navigate the challenges of these changing times, but to seize the business opportunities they provide.

What is driving the industry?
I prefer to think of “who” is driving the industry. Granted, as I have already suggested, there are many powers at play in the food retail world, but the industry is still being guided and successfully steered by its imaginative leaders, those forward thinking individuals with a substantive commitment to community, who remain vigilantly focused on the details, nuances and substance of the shopping experience being offered to their unique customers. These are the folks who keep a steady hand on the wheel and pay close attention to how to take advantage of the powerful forces around them to propel the industry forward.

Food retailers are rising to the challenge of meeting the distinct needs and wants of four generations of customers—from Millennials to Baby Boomers.  This means simultaneously keeping traditional means of reaching customers fresh, while capitalizing on new technology to find creative new ways of connecting and delivering personalized value. One of the most telling trends in the grocery retail experience is the increased emphasis that consumers—across all generations—are placing on mobile. Many of our executives are suggesting that by 2018, 20% of the purchases will be affected by mobile technology. Mobile also allows for a two-way conversation at the point of purchase and is a tool for personalizing the shopping experience, which is an immediate return on value and convenience.

Tell us about FMI Connect 2014.
The goal for our reimagined annual show, FMI Connect—The Global Food Retail Experience, is to create a global food retail experience that brings our industry together in a sight, sound and taste celebration of the connecting power of food. We are creating the most comprehensive, valuable, inspiring and future-facing conference the food retail industry has witnessed to date. Our vision is for FMI Connect to be more than an event; we want it to be a global food retail experience. Importantly, we are focused on solutions to the areas of the store that are the most impactful for consumers: Fresh, health and wellness, private brands, food safety and technology. Education programs will emphasize these areas with seminars from top-level speakers; plus, we will have learning opportunities on the exhibit floor and pre- and post-conference education.

Because health and wellness represent the very core of our industry, they will also be central to FMI Connect through incorporating and mainstreaming FMI’s Health and Wellness Conference into the content of our annual industry event. We will explore how to build and enhance health and wellness strategies through hands-on experiences. Likewise, we will incorporate our Private Brands Conference in our FMI Connect line-up, calling out what a dynamic role that segment is playing in our industry. Another key feature of FMI Connect will be an on-the-show floor laboratory called the Retail Experience of the Future, which will give retailers a trek into the time tunnel to see what lies ahead. While it is always intriguing to promise a glimpse into the future, the benefits of that foretaste will become obvious to those participating in the educational track focused on leadership development. Knowing what shoppers will want and expect in the future will shape the retail leadership qualities the industry will need to address those forthcoming customer expectations. Those paying attention to this aspect of the program will be given a definite head start in the food retail race ahead.

What are the benefits for retailers in attendance?
First, there are the benefits that come from those collaborating with us on this effort. FMI is enthusiastic about our three-year agreement to co-locate trade shows with United Fresh Produce Association (United Fresh), the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies (PMMI) and InterBev. These collaborations strengthen our ability to provide event-goers with solutions to growing basket size, increasing customer trips, improving margins and increasing market share.

Secondly, those at FMI Connect will benefit from being the first to see new lines of products on the show floor and to hear the results of FMI and the Hartman Group’s most recent shopper trends research. Insights into the shopper behaviors worthy of food retailer attention (and those that are not), suggested actions that will foster customer trust. Awareness of why grocers should give special attention to fresh and perishables will help inspire retailers with ideas and tangible means of reinvigorating the in-store experiences of their customers. And, as I have indicated, that is crucial for future success.

Finally, there is the all-important benefit that comes with peer interaction. Anyone who seeks to learn anything, whether a trade, a hobby or a skill, knows there is just something unparalleled about seeing others do it, hearing about their experiences, sharing in their challenges and simply being around those swimming in the same waters as you. The best way to pick up on tricks of the trade is to rub shoulders with those who are in the trade and the best place to do that is at FMI Connect.

What are the benefits for manufacturers?
One of the most important pillars in FMI’s strategic plan is an initiative entitled Total Store Collaboration, which calls for FMI to lead in developing an expansive executive forum that will drive overall industry growth and improve operational efficiencies. This program fits well with our current partnerships at FMI Connect, which reach across industries related to beverage, packaging, fresh produce and overarching food marketing and trade issues that encompass all aspects of the retail store. While we are constructing a literal representation of these partnerships on the show floor, for FMI as an association, the Total Store Collaboration initiative will come to life through more robust trading partner opportunities and efforts to enhance FMI’s stakeholder relations. We look forward to strengthening the ties with the manufacturing community year- over-year at FMI Connect.

What does the future look like for the industry?
Food retail is facing a renaissance of sorts. We have long existed to serve the customer, but that customer has become more wizened and better equipped in his or her expectation of personal, virtual and digital ways to shop. That customer also wants to better understand the source of his or her food and expects the retailer to share in that value system. In order to remain relevant to the customer, we have to embrace the changing landscape, which is why FMI continues to provide resources to help our members recognize the shifting topography and equip them with the tools to navigate this new terrain. As an association, we are challenged to be several steps ahead of our members so that we can offer them the information they need to make the most appropriate business decisions for their brand. 


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