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Postcards from the road...

SEATTLE - The week started with Michael Sansolo and me moderating a panel discussion at the California Grocers Association (CGA) Strategic Conference, featuring Safeway’s Karl Schroeder, Unified Grocers’ Al Plamann, and Kraft Foods’ Tom Corley, as well as facilitating round-table discussions with attendees. We then moved on to Portland, Oregon, where Michael spoke at the annual conference sponsored by the Portland State University Food Industry Center, and I spoke at the vendor conference held by Western Family. And then, I moved on, via Amtrak, to Seattle, where I met up with some MNB users last night at Etta’s, and where I have some meetings today.

Here are three highlights that opened my eyes during the week...

• During the panel discussion, there seemed to be agreement that the recessionary environment being endured by the country right now may be some sort of structural change in the nation’s economy...with the strong possibility that high unemployment of eight, nine or ten percent the status quo for as long as a decade. Or maybe longer. Which means that people and companies may need to adjust their expectations and approaches, because we’re not going back to the way things were anytime soon.

• One of the revelations during my roundtable about technology was that at Raley’s, where some 18 stores offer online shopping, there are customers who have established relationships with the professional shoppers who take their lists and walk the stores for people who prefer to use their computer keyboards. Some people actually request specific shoppers to do their picking for them...which means, in some ways, that technology - often criticized for depersonalizing various experiences - actually may be creating a more personalized experience when it is done right. (I think that maybe companies ought to post pictures and profiles of available shoppers on their sites, and allow customers to choose from them when placing orders.)

• Laree Renda, the Safeway executive vice president, gave a wonderful speech at the PSU dinner, stressing the extent to which, even in challenging economic times, companies need to focus on customer service and great food as key differentiators.

She used as an example a company that I’d never heard of - Kogi, a Korean BBQ to-go enterprise that has no set physical location - just five trucks that go to rotating locations around the Los Angeles area, where they usually find lines of dozens of people who have been tracking the trucks’ movements via the internet. She seemed to be suggesting that Kogi’s nimble business model and high quality combine to make it a unique and successful business, and that it offers lessons that all food retailers can learn from.

And those are my Friday Eye-Openers...

- Kevin Coupe
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