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Content Guy’s Note: Each Monday, we are featuring an article previewing some aspect of the annual Food Marketing Institute (FMI) show, scheduled for May 4-6 in Chicago.

In an ultra-competitive marketplace, it can be a real disadvantage being a small, independent operators facing off against large, value-driven big box stores and the massive chains that dominate the retailing landscape. But there can be real advantages as well -- if the independent operator is willing and able to use speed and agility to wage war against the larger, less nimble competition.

In an FMI Learning Lab presentation scheduled for Monday, May 5 from 8:15 to 11 am, a number of the industry’s most successful independent retailers will recommend specific approaches and strategies that can allow other small retailers to be more competitive. This session will be highly interactive -- engaging with attendees to identify applicable ideas that can work in a variety of environments.

To get a preview of "Size Matters: The Smaller, The Faster," we conducted the following exclusive e-interview with the moderator of the session.

MNB: So, what’s the big deal about a Learning Lab designed just for independent food retailers?

Kevin Coupe: There’s no question that independent and smaller, regional retailers have their backs against the wall these days. Not only is there the inevitable confrontation with Wal-Mart that many of them are going to have, but there’s also the fact that they are competing with other big box stores such as Costco, major chains, drug stores, convenience stores, gas stations -- virtually every retailer out there, regardless of what they sell, has decided that food is a great way to bring in and keep customers. When Home Depot starts selling doughnuts by creating an alliance with Dunkin Donuts, that’s when you realize that the winds of change are blowing hard and blowing fast.

One of the things that FMI’s Independent Operator Division seems clear about is helping these smaller retailer create offensive weapons that can compete against some of the obvious advantages that the bigger stores have.

So, we’ve pulled together a really outstanding group of retailers who will be talking about specific elements of their experience, giving attendees not just a pep talk, but usable ideas that can be brought home and acted upon. And, we’ll be making sure every step of the way that we’re addressing the financial implications of whatever ideas they suggest, because we want this to be a session rooted in real world experience and opportunity.

MNB: We see that there’s a c-store operator on the panel. What’s that all about?

Kevin Coupe: It’s been our contention from the very beginning of creating this learning Lab that small independent convenience stores have a lot more in common with small, independent supermarkets than any of them have in common with Wal-Mart. So, we thought it made sense to bring in a c-store operator that can share his perspective and ideas.

We got very lucky when Stuart Lowry, director of marketing with Tiger Fuel Co., agreed to participate. Tiger has created a series of foodservice-driven marketplaces that replaced their traditional gasoline/service station model, and they’ve been extremely successful by capitalizing on their ability to be fast, nimble and creative. It’s a great story.

MNB: We looked at the catalog, and it looks like you’ll be beating that old Internet horse again.

Kevin Coupe: Scoff all you want. The fact is that there are a number of independent retailers out there that are finding the Internet to be a major factor as they work to differentiate themselves from the competition. And it isn’t just a marketing difference -- they’re also seeing incremental sales and profits.

We’ll have Tim Metcalfe of Sentry Markets on hand to tell us what he’s done in this area, how he’s done it, and the kind of impact the Internet has had on his business.

Only a fool -- and we say this respectfully -- would call the Internet an "old horse."

MNB: What else is on tap?

Kevin Coupe: We’ll have Tom Honer of Harvest Market and Ben Robinson of Raise the Bar to talk about the advantages of creating value networks that can build sales and profits. We’ll have Tim Devanney, of Highland Park Markets, to talk about competing in the cutthroat New England market. And lots more.

Plus, we’ll have tons of prizes to give away during the session, as we work with the audience to come up with ideas they can use, ideas that are applicable to a broad range of store formats and market types.

In short, it should be a very interesting session, and we’re thrilled to have been invited to be part of it.

MNB: That sounds uncharacteristically modest.

Kevin Coupe: You media guys are all alike...trying to stir up controversy.
KC's View: