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BOCA RATON, Fla. - “Smart Choices” is the theme chosen for this year’s Food Marketing Institute (FMI) Executive Conference, an intriguing notion reflected by the some of the offerings, which seemed designed to give attendees a sense of hope…if only retailers are able to meet challenges made to them.

For example, Carl Steidtmann, chief economist at Deloitte Consulting, suggested that the competitive situation has gotten to the point where companies that can define for themselves specific niches and consumer-centric offerings will be best positioned to compete with the likes of Wal-Mart. But it’s more than just defining a position in the market – it also is implementing that vision, and delivering on it every day to every shopper. Any less, and the customer will find someplace else to go.

Regina Herzlinger, a professor at the Harvard Business School, gave the audience of executives a lesson in how a consumer-driven health system would be good for both management and labor alike. “The fact is that I know more about the tomato sauce that I buy at Star Market than I do about the doctor who treats my breast cancer or you guys have treat your prostate cancer.” The current system, she said, suffers from inflation, unknown quality and 46 million people in this country who are uninsured. What would work better, she said, would be a system in which employees are offered a choice of bundled providers, a choice of insurers, and a plenty of consumer-friendly, actionable information – and have “skin in the game” because it is their money being spent on health care. Again, a critical issue and a message of hope – but the sense was that making such a shift would be an enormous undertaking fraught with landmines.

And for those of us concerned that supermarkets are losing touch with their core consumers, there was a fascinating presentation by Margaret Heffernan, a columnist with Fast Company magazine, about the need to bring more women into chains’ leadership ranks. Things are changing, she said, in part because men have daughters – and that causes them to look at the workplace through different eyes. At the same time, she said, “a lot of smart men are marrying smart women, they have peer-to-peer marriages, and they are starting to see the workplace through the eyes of their wives.”

While there is hope, she said, there is a long way to go. At the same time as the statistics suggest that supermarket chains are behind the curve when it comes to having women in leadership positions, Heffernan said that there are studies suggesting that gender diversity and increased profitability seem to go hand in hand; there is no straight cause and effect relationship, to be sure, but there seems to be a connection. But in the current environment, Heffernan said, “men are promoted on the basis of promise, and women are promoted on the basis of achievement.”

While hope was alive, there were a pair of presentations yesterday that defined how quickly a company can lose its currency and cachet, and how hard it is to recover. The speeches were by Ahold CEO Anders Moberg and Coca-Cola CEO E. Neville Isdell. And as one retailer said to us, “If you told me five years ago that I’d be at an FMI conference listening to the CEOs of Ahold and Coke talking about how they have to reinvent their companies, I never would have believed it.”

And while the problems faced by Coke and Ahold are vastly different and require different solutions, both companies are stark reminders of how slippery the slope of competition can be when choices made are not smart.

MNB will have more coverage and analysis tomorrow…
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