retail news in context, analysis with attitude

LAS VEGAS - Independent grocers from all over the country came here, to a city that virtually defines the word "excess," to hear two political veterans describe how the United States has brought itself to the precipice of financial ruin, and why uncommon political courage is required if the nation is to pull itself back from the brink.

The National Grocers Association (NGA) is meeting here at the Mirage Hotel and Convention Center, for its annual show, designed to celebrate the independent retail sector as well as the organization's 35th year.

For the opening night keynote, following a "state of the industry" presentation from NGA chairman Joseph Sheridan of Wakefern Food Corp. and NGA president/CEP Peter Larkin, the stage was set for former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyoming) and Erskine Bowles, chief of staff in the Clinton White House, who together chaired the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, formed to frame solutions to the nation's fiscal crisis.

Bowles told the audience that the nation must confront five challenges if it is to put its fiscal house in order: the rising cost of health care, national defense expenditures that are way out of proportion, an antiquated and anti-competitive tax code, Social Security, and compound interest that continues to raise the cost of the nation's debt. Bowles added that we find ourselves in "the most predictable economic crisis in history," as well as "the most avoidable economic crisis in history."

However, Simpson said, the climate for the kind of political compromise necessary to address these issues in a honest way as been poisoned by the fact that people in both parties "don;t just want to win, but they want to make the other guy lose, and there's a helluva lot of difference."

Bowles argued that one of the only ways that the nation can get to the point where the "sensible center" can dominate is to change the ways in which redistricting has allowed politicians to only cater to their most extreme bases, rather than having to forge positions that appeal to people on both sides of the aisle.

To considerable applause, Simpson urged the retailers in the audience to make their voices heard: "You are most effective people to bring this message," he said, because grocers are so important to the communities that they serve.

In other NGA news....

• At Saturday's NGA Board of Directors Dinner, Mike Needler, Sr., CEO of Fresh Encounter, was awarded the 2012 Thomas K. Zaucha Entrepreneurial Excellence Award.
Needler, a successful entrepreneur whose business was founded in 1964 and has successfully grown to 29 stores in Ohio and Indiana, is recognized as an outstanding leader in both the industry and his community.

• Andrew Borracchini of Metropolitan Market at Admiral in Seattle, WA has won the 2013 National Grocers Association (NGA) Best Bagger Championship, sponsored by ConAgra Foods, Pringles, Bunzl Distribution, and Pan-Oston Company.  Look for him to appear on "The Late Show with David Letterman" later this week.
KC's View:
It occurred to me, as I was listening to Bowles and Simpson - both of whom make an enormous amount of sense - that part of the problem is the fact that so many special interests are in Washington, DC, spending enormous amounts of time and money trying to influence how politicians vote on a wide variety of issues. Virtually every group in America has a lobbyist whose job it is to ensure that they don't take a hit when legislation is passed.

I'm guessing that one of the reasons that this did not come up is the fact that NGA is, in fact, proud of its lobbying activities and makes no bones about the fact that it is increasing and improving its DC presence.

Not to suggest that NGA exercises its lobbying muscles in an irresponsible manner ... but by its very definition, lobbying is designed to protect specific groups. Lobbyists never say "just to the right thing, even if it hurts us." They say, "Do the right thing, and the right thing is to help us, not hurt us."

And do, I have a deep level of cynicism about whether any of these politicians, on any side of the aisle, will risk their political careers to make hard decisions that actually are in the best interests of the country. They're so busy playing defense that nobody wants to play offense. They have the opportunity to save the country, and often it seems like all they want to do is save their political careers and political parties.