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Notes at Comment from FMI’s Marketechnics Conference…

SAN DIEGO – Yesterday’s opening presentation for day two of the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) Marketechnics conference featured Dr. Kjell Nordström, a writer and consultant known globally for his unorthodox approach to business.

On this particular day, however, Nordström offered a message that was not so much unorthodox as it was remarkable it its simplicity – though not necessarily easy to implement. In business, Nordström said, it is critical to create what he called a “temporary monopoly,” an idea that differentiates you from the competition and that makes you at least momentarily unassailable. Such advantages, of course, are only fleeting, he said – and therefore one must always be seeking the next one, and the one after that.

But Nordström made clear he was not talking about a technological advantage. “World class technology is absolutely necessary in every industry,” he said, “but it is not enough, not sufficient for a temporary monopoly.” When companies get into trouble, he said, they reorganize and reinvent themselves, but while this is necessary, it is not sufficient. “Anyone can do this,” he said.

Nordström suggested taking a page from nature, where the rule is “survival of the fittest – not the biggest, not the strongest.” He said that the problem is that too many organizations are not fit, that they engage in what he called “karaoke capitalism.” The karaoke metaphor refers to the bars where people, fortified by alcohol, try to imitate famous singers. “There is a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy,” he said, “and the original is nowhere in the house. There is no point of differentiation.”

It was a canny remark, especially because the general consensus from retailers walking the Marketechnics exhibit floor seemed to be that there was no breakthrough strategy to be seen, only technologies that offered tactical baby steps to retailers. There is a sense of an industry in waiting, a sense of expectation – what will the next killer application be that will point the way?

Of course, the argument could be made that retailers looking to technology companies for killer strategies are looking in the wrong place – that technology, in Nordström’s words, is necessary but not sufficient for differentiation.

This is the last Marketechnics, at least as a stand-alone show. Next year, it will be folded into the May FMI Show. (After that, the show’s future remains up in the air – it could return to stand-alone status, could continue to co-locate with the main show, or could co-locate with another technology conference, a possibility very much under consideration by FMI.)

Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe retail technology is best served when seen in the context of other disciplines and when available to a broader attendee pool. Maybe that’s the kind of environment from which temporary monopolies can spring. Maybe.

Nordström said that the magic of 2006 and beyond is that it gives people the freedom to know everything they want to know, go anywhere they want to go, do anything they want to do and be anyone they want to be – allowing people to differentiate themselves in business and in life. That’s the good news, he said – the bad news is that pretty much everyone has the same tactical advantages.

It’s what you do with them that counts.

Which seems like an apt description of how retailers should be looking at technology.
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