From the Editor
It is, quite literally, one of the great triumphs of western civilization to be able to gather the most extraordinary foods from all corners of the globe and bring them within the easy reach of virtually every citizen. Yet, this mighty triumph may atrophy if we don't look at the big challenge before us in 2004 and the years ahead.
The reason for doing trade shows is obvious and persuasive - business is still dependant on human interaction. For all the continuous replenishment programs, EDI systems and high-tech devices, the initial buy is always made by a person. As persuasive as the traditional show schedule is, sellers and buyers would do well to add additional shows - specifically shows outside of the country.
The fact that food retailing at the chain store level has become obsessed with Wal-Mart is leading to business decisions that are bad for the supermarkets and bad for the specialty food industry.
Clearly the specialty food offer is not amendable to the kind of mass globalization that you can do with television sets or even with oranges. The great temptation for the retail giants, as they rush to fulfill their mission of driving costs out of the system by standardizing procurement, will be to simply not carry much in the way of specialty foods.
In order to deal with the circumstances of tariffs, countries have followed a multilateral approach to reduce them, first under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and now under the World Trade Organization (WTO). It was recognized early on, though, that restricting tariffs wouldn't help if countries were free to establish a lot of non-tariff barriers.
One battle does not a war make. American attitudes toward other countries will be determined as much by their future behavior as by their behavior around the Iraq war. In general, boycotts are a rough-edged tool and should be avoided.
The winds of war are temporary and zeitgeists ever-changing. The specialty food industry will endure and prevail over these momentary interruptions. What might just do it in, however, at least on a mass scale, is the attitude of major supermarket chains. When Kroger announced its quarterly earnings, the company caused stock prices to drop throughout the supermarket industry. It really had little to do with Kroger's performance but more with its assessment of the industry... and its plans for the future.
The contents of a poorly assorted "Fine British Foods" rack at the front end of an aisle in a major regional supermarket chain point to tremendous changes needed in the way supermarkets handle specialty foods. And it is not just this rack. In fact the display is important because it typifies the problems with the way supermarkets handle these types of items.
Recognizing the need to address consumer needs that vary from place to place and acknowledging that serving these varied consumers means knowing subtle differences between the divergent groups, supermarket executives have hit upon a solution to address this dilemma. The hot job today is to be an Ethnic Foods Director.
For a supermarket, handling specialty food is essential. Not only for the profits these products generate, but because an appropriate specialty food offering is, along with fine perishable departments, the point of differentiation for one store from another.
Since September 11th, there has been a flight, understandable to be sure, to comfort foods. Fried chicken sales at supermarket delis boomed in the weeks after the terrorist attacks. The challenge for the specialty food industry may be to find a way to encourage people to expand their horizons in a culinary sense - even if they are staying close to home.
More so than with most of the food industry, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 are attacks on the specialty food industry. Or, to be more precise, they are attacks on the kind of world that allows a specialty food industry to exist. This is no accident. It is the specific and exact aim of the terrorists. The ongoing war against terrorism is likely to have moments in which it significantly affects the specialty food trade.
In her commentary featured in this issue, Liz Thomas cries the frustration specialty food manufacturers have long felt in dealing with supermarkets and high volume retailers: That big vendors, accustomed to dealing with other product types, over-price and under-promote specialty foods. In an age where all large volume retailers are fighting in the 'commoditization' of the business, it is a serious charge - and not a frivolous one.
Supermarkets have never really reconciled themselves to their vital role as the mainstream source of supply for specialty foods. That is why even out of the rarified air of the specialty food store, supermarkets have been losing the battle to control the specialty food marketplace to other high volume outlets. But it is a market well worth fighting for.
In the past, as long as distributors had important roles in identifying hot new items and particular expertise in merchandising specialty foods, this special expertise could provide a compelling reason to work with them. Equally, as long as supermarket chains were small, the logistics capabilities of large specialty food distributors were compelling. As the distributors grew they lost their regional and ethnic product expertise, and as the retailers grew they acquired better logistics capabilities than the distributors, well, that pretty much set the stage for where we are.
Our Electoral College system, whatever one may think of it, has the great advantage of turning the presidential election into 51 smaller elections and thus encourages reaching out and addressing concerns all across the land. Unfortunately, we don't have a similar system for the specialty food industry, and so marketers usually find it easier to increase market share - and thus sales - than to broaden their marketing.
The past few years have seen a slew of articles, studies, press releases and pronouncements that kosher food has been mainstreamed. Though this picture of broadened interest and robust growth is true, it is also easily misinterpreted as a sign of health for the kosher food industry. Instead, it is more likely to lead to weakness in the kosher food industry than strength.
In the midst of the biggest boom in specialty foods in human history, there is trouble afoot, and it goes by the name of category management. Category managers all across the country are targeting specialty foods because the movement reports characterize these particular items as slow sellers. This is a mistake because the value of any individual item to a store simply can't be measured by its contribution to its category.
The National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, sponsor of the Fancy Food Shows, and the Food Marketing Institute, sponsor of the big supermarket trade show, have announced a plan to co-locate the Chicago Fancy Food Show and the FMI show in 2002. It sounds like a pretty neat package - FMI gets the volume of attendees it needs and NASFT gets the boost in the category of big buyers that it needs. But the execution will need some work and the concept itself is food for thought.
The stock market is pessimistic right now on the so-called B2C sites - that is business-to-commerce. Yet when it comes to the specialty food trade, one would be wise to not write off these consumer-oriented web sties. The reason has to do with the nature of the medium and the nature of the specialty food trade.
The hottest area on Wall Street right now is the business-to-business Internet sector. Higher average sales, fewer customers to reach all add up to a juicy prospect. What about the specialty food business? Is it likely that procurement of specialty foods will be principally handled over the Internet? Or is the nature of the product inimical to doing business in this manner?
The specialty food industry needs to stand together and fight as a common entity. After all, the creation of lists to put tariffs on is an inherently political decision, and if the specialty food industry doesn't lobby effectively, it cedes the playing field to those industries that will do so.
Ben & Jerry's has a "schtick" embodied in the personage of its namesake founders - two regular guys not at all like the "suits" presumed to run most big corporations. The questions surrounding the buyout saga of Ben & Jerry's are really the questions for the whole specialty food industry as it considers branding: What makes a brand strong, how is a brand built, what makes a brand die?
I regularly receive poignant calls and letters from struggling small specialty food marketers, each claiming they produce the best product in its class. Yet they are frustrated to find that despite, at least in their perception, having created a better mousetrap, the world does not beat a path to their door. Even among those who have the courage of their convictions and are dedicated full-bore to building their company and selling their product, I see several serious mistakes being made every day.
As are all issues at the nexus of science and politics, food biotechnology is a complicated issue, and industry members should hold their fire until they are really sure where they stand. There is a lot of misinformation around, and the relationship between GMOs and the environment can be complicated.
Food and wine are so intertwined that it is difficult to imagine wide appreciation for fine food developing without wide appreciation for fine wine. That's why a bill now before congress, threatening to retard the development of a broader wine-consuming base, is a threat to the specialty-food industry. The unconstitutional effort is also a concern for all Americans.
There is substantial evidence that a Direct Store Delivery (DSD) method of distribution is the most profitable way to handle many items, including specialty foods. The theory behind self-distribution is simple: cut out the middleman's profit. It seems to make sense. Why doesn't it happen? The answer is really divided into three categories: privatization, competition, and specialization.
"Kosher from Florida" is a new logo and slogan that Florida's Department of Agriculture is pushing as a marketing strategy to increase sales of kosher food produced in Florida. More problematic than the state promoting its production of kosher food is the question of defining kosher food.
Food safety is important for all food products. Yet as the specialty food industry moves increasingly into the perishable arena, new food safety challenges are certain to emerge. For the industry, the move to perishables poses a substantially bigger question: namely, whether we are prepared to accept the traditionally conservative stance of the United States government on food safety.
In a sense, the sale of Balducci's means nothing. What this acquisition really says is something about America. This country has become so wealthy and so sophisticated about food that credible people believe there is a national market for stores devoted to the high-end specialty food market.
The most important news item with implications for the specialty food industry isn't the latest cuisine trend from Paris. The news is about toys, specifically, Toys R Us, which, according to The NPD Group, a Port Washington, NY-based market research firm, in 1998 was dethroned as the nation's largest toy vendor. There is a lesson here about product specialization that the specialty food industry needs to pay careful attention to.
The definition of upscale food is changing, partly due to consumers' desires to spend money improving their health. With the large baby-boom-age populous now running smack into middle age and beyond, a desire to maintain youthfulness and good health is natural. Additionally, this generation is the most educated up to its time and has a healthy disposable income. The mixture has created a consumer market ready to explode.
Throughout history, class relationships have been manifested through various means. Costume is one - how one dresses is a classic status signifier. Spatial stratification (where one gathers) is another. Yet the old standards are becoming difficult to interpret. In an age in which grunge can be seen as high fashion, shopping in rarified venues is unlikely to survive as a status symbol.
As the specialty food industry gathers in San Francisco for the NASFT's Winter Fancy Food Show, the cornucopia at hand will doubtless win everyone's attention. Yet far away from the City by the Bay, a war is brewing - and I'm not talking about Iraq. I'm talking about a trade war over bananas, which is in danger of spilling over into the specialty food industry.
In a meeting recently of the National Association of Perishable Agricultural Receivers, Tim Hammonds, president and CEO of the Food Marketing Institute, provided insight into the dilemmas facing the wholesale grocer. Fleming, the nation's second-largest wholesaler, has been struggling for some time. The recent appointment of a new CEO held out hope of a revival, but a revival for the industry will be difficult without a total transformation.
Somehow what is so often recognized when it comes to product selection is mysteriously forgotten when it comes to financial terms. This is brought to mind by the current hullabaloo over the imposition of various kinds of slotting fees, contract negotiation fees and whatnot by distributors. Thinking about the necessity of serving the customer may also provide a workable solution to the problem at hand.
November , 1998
The specialty food industry has such a rarified reputation - the finest foods consumed by those with the most refined palates - that it is reasonable to ask what the implications of an economic decline would be for the specialty food industry: probably not as tough as some would imagine.
Success in business is a result of many different traits. Industry knowledge, diligence, and a good reputation are prominent among them. Confidence, however, is a fragile flower, and the question of how to build it among one's various constituencies - and how to maintain it over time - is a prime consideration for anyone who wishes to maintain or grow a business.
True story: A supermarket chain received a substantial sum of money from a big distributor. The money was a payment to obtain the status of "exclusive specialty food distributor" in that area. The chain saw the efficiency of dealing with one supplier as well as from the initial payment. The distributor sought to freeze out competitors while gaining the efficiencies that went from handling the chain's large volume. The champagne was poured, the toasts were made, and a brave new world had arrived. Then, to the shock of both parties, there was a hitch. A manufacturer said no.
August , 1998
Today high quality product is commonplace. This means that much of what will distinguish the successes from the failures in today's specialty food industry is not the product itself but access to distribution and an ability to drive sales both to the trade and to the consumer.
Shakespeare urged us to first kill all the lawyers. For the specialty food industry, it may be category management that poses the more immediate threat. It sounds so good. The problem, however, is that while the category managers are maximizing sales and profits for their own little category, nobody is managing the overall shopping experience.
Meal solutions is the hottest area in supermarketing today. Making a success of it is also the biggest quandary. The traditional grocery store model - sell food, mom cooks, family eats - will result in a smaller and smaller share-of-stomach for grocery stores every year. It is intriguing that even though supermarkets have been struggling to keep share-of-stomach, specialty product sales have been booming. The explanation is complex but, oddly enough, is related.
The staple items carried by all markets cannot, almost by definition, create a compelling reason for a consumer to select one store over another. Specialty items, however, have that power, because the items are... well... special. The items are not available everywhere.
The very fact that I can reference an organic "community" shows that the organic industry is different. It is that difference which is at the crux of the current disputes over federal law regulating organic agricultural practices and the marketing of product as organic.
Are traditional supermarket chain competencies really the ones that will increase sales and profits from specialty food sales? There is real cause for doubt on this point.