"Real issues. Real grocers. Real solutions." The virtual emcee spoke in an unplaced drawl, announcing the commencement of the 2012 National Grocers Association (NGA) convention in Las Vegas. Or as the title actually read, more fittingly, the NGA "Show". For all the multicolored spotlights and kitschy tunes, it could have been an episode of Family Feud. "And now, the Chairman of the Board..." Drew Carey? "Chris Coborn!" The CEO of the St. Cloud-based Coborn's, Inc. strode to the podium and proceeded to narrate a grocery list of NGA's accomplishments off a see-through teleprompter, before yielding the stage to the incoming chairman, Joe Sheridan. The introductory keynote session was half back-patting and half sales pitches to encourage membership and participation in the trade association. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates then gave a captivating insider's look on international politics and the world's geopolitical future to diversify the night's entertainment. The first night's program was mainly fanfare and was a little bit, err, unreal. So what were the "real issues" facing independent grocers, and what were all these affable store owners and food distributors gathering for?
The next day, the trade floor was arranged with hundreds of booths and exhibitions by food processors, industry service providers, and other related associations. I grabbed a cut of beef from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and went to meet my industry mentor as part of the student intern program that myself and five other UMN students were participating in. I walked the floor with a gentleman from SUPERVALU responsible for distribution in the Pacific Northwest region. The Eden Prairie-based company is a non-independent competitor to most NGA members through its retail banners, e.g. Cub Foods, yet is also a key player in the independent grocery industry through its distribution and logistics services. This sometimes presents oddly contradictory aims within the same company, especially when it comes to government affairs and lobbying.
My mentor exemplified the situation with the state of Washington's recently passed initiative to privatize liquor sales -- the Washington-based Costco spent a state record $23 million in its successful public campaign for the initiative. Yet the state independent grocers association, presumably with similar members as NGA, opposed the initiative because of its anti-competitive language restricting the alcohol sales privilege to stores over 10,000 square feet -- many independent stores do not fulfill this size requirement. Meanwhile, SUPERVALU operates the retail banner Albertson's in Washington, which would ostensibly profit from the initiative's passing. These conflicting interests are not unique to SUPERVALU and manifest themselves in NGA efforts as well. One can easily imagine situations when the interests of single stores are at odds with larger chains, like Coborn's, which despite yearly revenues of nearly $1 billion still satisfies the member requirements of NGA by being employee- and family-owned. All the while, NGA must identify similarities and differences between its members and the "bigs" (a term I heard throughout the convention, referring to Target, Wal-Mart, Kroger, etc.), and how these interplay with the NGA's goal of presenting a unified voice for independent grocers nationwide.
While one goal of the NGA Show was to present real issues and solutions to members, another was surely to entertain. As the trade floor wound down, the energy in the adjacent room became palpable as contestants and super-fans prepared for the annual Best Bagger Competition. Baggers representing 24 states were judged on speed, weight distribution, placement, and style. Of course, it came down to Minnesota v. Wisconsin: Blake Westling from the Byerly's in Eagan, MN against Stephanie Teteak from the Larry's Piggly Wiggly in Appleton, WI. What was at stake? Only $5,000 and ultimate bragging rights (Is it pop or soda? Is it a fountain or a bubbler? Cheese or lutefisk?). By a heartbreaking 1.3 points, Stephanie defeated Blake despite his valiant effort, but was later bested by late-night funnyman David Letterman. Get 'em next year, Blake.