Food retailers, wholesalers, suppliers and other food retail industry members met in Chicago to network, learn and engage at FMI Connect. We talked to Leslie G. Sarasin, FMI president and CEO, about the highlights from the show, which focused on catering to customers while improving operations and looking toward the future of the food retail industry.

What were the top three key takeaways from FMI Connect for members of the food retail industry?

FMI Connect focused on the imperatives of keeping ahead of the accelerating pace of change in food retail. Some of the catalysts driving this change include intense competition from new formats, the need for operational excellence, including speed to market, and meeting consumer expectations for transparency and customization — all of which can be enabled by technology. As I walked the Expo floor with our executive committee leadership, sat in on educational sessions and eavesdropped on hallway conversations, three themes were most apparent:

  1. Our customers may not always be right…but they’re never wrong.
  2. (read more…)

Dimitris Politopoulos and his team heard their mobile phones ringing as soon as they turned them back on after landing in New York City for the Sunday start of the Summer Fancy Food Show, with calls of concern about the growing economic turmoil back home. The CEO of 776 Deluxe Foods, a producer of olives, oils and honey spreads, joined executives from a long list of other Greek food companies that filled more than three aisles of the trade show’s floor, making connections with the distributors and retailers with the power to help them start or expand their exporting efforts in the U.S.

Many of the companies at the Summer Fancy Food Show already export to the U.S., as well as Europe, Canada and Australia, and those international deals grow more critical as the economic turmoil at home continues. On Tuesday, Greece officially defaulted on a $1.7 billion loan payment to the International Monetary Fund, and on Sunday the citizens will vote on a referendum on whether to remain part of the Eurozone. (read more…)

Two years ago, bean chips were one of the hottest snack foods at the Summer Fancy Food Show. Now we’re seeing the actual roasted chickpeas, the latest step in the evolution toward healthier, more natural snacks, said Louise Kramer, communications director for the Specialty Food Association.

“Retailers want what’s new and healthy, less-processed and with simple ingredients,” she said. “And people want food with stories behind them. The products have to talk themselves off the shelves.”

U.S. specialty food sales hit a record $109 billion in retail and foodservice channels last year, and there’s no shortage of stories in the new-brand pavilion at the New York City show, which started Sunday and runs through Tuesday, from a pair of nuclear power plant engineers who created an unsweetened carbonated tea brand to a mom with two sets of twins who launched a vegetarian soup business.

Gina Stryker began making vegetarian food 12 years ago for her yoga-instructor husband’s retreats, and eventually the students told Stryker she should bottle and sell her soups. (read more…)

Social media has become an important platform for supermarkets to engage with customers, but retailers need to learn to balance the control they have historically exercised over their communications against the power that their employees and customers wield on sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Pinterest.

In many cases, it is the customers who are diving the conversation, and often it is to the benefit of supermarket operators, according to three food retailers on a panel on social media at the Food Marketing Institute’s FMI Connect show in Chicago.

Hy-Vee, the regional supermarket chain based in West Des Moines, Iowa, has a strong customer following for the Chinese food it offers in its stores. These fans have coined the term “Hy-Chi” for the hot, prepared offering, and several years ago began posting messages on social media using that term with the hash tag #HyChi. These posts were often accompanied by descriptions of customers’ cravings for the food or the satisfaction it delivers. (read more…)

The shopping list is a common tool for consumers, who often shop for groceries with a focused and definite goal in mind. And while getting them to stray from buying only the items on their lists can be a difficult task, it is certainly not an impossible one. But are retailers and manufacturers really doing all they can to inspire impulse buys? According to Bill Dusek, managing director at Dechert-Hampe & Co., and Ron Hughes, senior manager of shopper strategy and innovation at The Coca-Cola Company, who covered the topic at FMI Connect in Chicago this week, there is more that can be done to spur shoppers to put those last-minute items in their baskets.

Last year, front-end sales accounted for about $6.4 billion of the total spend at supermarkets, according Dusek, and beverages, confections and magazines mostly drive front-end sales for food retailers across formats.

“The front end is a big, big business,” he said. (read more…)