retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

PHOENIX -- Hard choices and hard decisions are not just the purview of food retailers and manufacturers looking to make their businesses sustainable and relevant. Challenges of various kinds are being faced by a wide swath of other industries, especially those that cater to a fast-evolving consumer population.

At yesterday’s Food Marketing Institute (FMI) Midwinter Executive Conference here, I had the privilege of moderating a panel discussion with senior executives from a number of other disciplines - sports, journalism, entertainment and advertising - to examine how they are approaching their specific business challenges.

Laura Hollingsworth, for example, is the president and publisher of the Des Moines Register and Des Moines Register Media, as well as President of the West Group for Gannett’s U.S. Community Publishing Division. She told the audience that while newspapers are widely believed to be dying, the truth is that only the “paper” part seems to be endangered, and that her company is endeavoring to reinvent itself as a content provider that cuts across all media, able to provide it to consumers via iPads or other new technologies. One interesting comment from Hollingsworth: She said that she does not measure herself or her company’s success by benchmarks within the newspaper industry, but rather believes that Gannett must “distance” itself from the competition by doing things differently.

The importance of being a content provider also was stressed by Beau Fraser, Managing Director of The Gate Worldwide, a global advertising agency with offices in New York, Europe and Asia, as well as the co-author of “Death to All Sacred Cows.” Fraser said that more than ever, ad agencies - while continuing to be in the primary business of coming up with good ideas for clients - have to be in the content generating business, going deeper and wider than ever, providing information to a demanding and insatiable consumer population in a wide variety of venues. ‘Don Draper would probably not recognize The Gate as an ad agency if he walked in the front door,” he said.

Gerry Lopez, President/CEO of AMC Entertainment Holdings, the nation’s second largest movie theatre chain, pointed to all the ways in which his company is working to know and serve its customers better - developing a frequent theater-goer program that is modeled on Amazon.com’s for acting on previous behavior and rewarding consistency, developing better foodservice programs and even serving alcohol in certain locations as a way of bringing in new customers, and finding ways to source films not being provided by the major studios - in essence developing a private brand to compete with the national brands.

And Stu Upson, Executive Director of the US Bowling Congress, which has more than two million members, spoke to the challenges his industry is facing - bowling centers that have invested in restaurants and other entertainment options (such as video games) as a way of attracting new customers, but run the risk of alienating frequent bowlers who don’t like the changes. Upson said that the industry has to be very careful about balancing short-term returns with long-term strategic priorities, which is made more difficult in an environment that offers young people so many entertainment alternatives.

All of the participants pointed to the importance of providing strong leadership - that while consensus is important, at the end of the day they have to make the tough decisions, sharing the credit if things work and shouldering the blame when things go wrong. And they agreed that it is critical to be able to look at and change their businesses without being jaundiced by the past.

It certainly is doable. The fifth panelist, Leo Hopf, a teacher, consultant and co-author of “Rethink, Reinvent, Reposition: 12 Strategies to Renew Your Business and Boost Your Bottom Line,” told the story of Boise Cascade, a lumber company that saw its business model as being unsustainable and decided to sell all of its mills and buy Office Max, a retailing enterprise that it believed had a brighter future than its traditional business.

I can’t speak for the audience ... but I hope they found the panelists to be as interesting as I did.

(BTW...both “Death to All Sacred Cows” and “Rethink, Reinvent, Reposition: 12 Strategies to Renew Your Business and Boost Your Bottom Line” are available on Amazon.com.)

In other news from FMI Midwinter...

• Tim Devanney, president of Highland Park Market, Inc., received the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) Glen P. Woodard, Jr., Public Affairs Award today.  The award recognizes Devanney’s leadership in helping the supermarket industry address important government issues.

Devanney is the 16th recipient of the Woodard Award, named for Glen Woodard, who led public affairs advocacy in the supermarket industry during the second half of the 20th century, representing Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., and FMI.

• Richard G. Wolford, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Del Monte Foods, received the FMI William H. Albers Industry Relations Award today, along with Arthur B. Drogue, retired senior vice president of customer development for the America’s at Unilever.  Both men were recognized for their excellence in trading partner relations and consumer and community service.
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