business news in context, analysis with attitude

Notes & comment from the FMI 2006 Show…

CHICAGO – In his keynote opening speech to the 2006 Food Marketing Institute (FMI) Show here, journalist Ted Koppel, formerly of Nightline and currently of the Discovery Channel, offered an assessment of modern newsgathering that actually served as an interesting metaphor for retailing.

• Koppel noted that when he was covering the war in Vietnam in the early sixties, stories would be captured on film and then shipped back to New York for editing and broadcast – a process that would take between two and a half and three days. But when he covered the war in Iraq just a few years ago, Koppel said, he was able to broadcast stories essentially live, with the process taking all of two and a half seconds. "This can be good," he said, "or this can be dangerous. When it takes two and a half days to air the story…you have to provide context. But when everything is live, the emphasis is not so much on what is important as on what is recent." There is, he said, "a rush to the obvious" in which journalists "confuse immediacy with importance."

In other words, journalism – especially on the broadcast side – has become so focused on the short term that it does not consider either the long-term implications of the stories being reported, or the long-term implications that such an approach might have on the profession's credibility. Which seems like an observation that one could make about the food retailing business, as many businesses look for short-term financial advantages through such tools as slotting allowances and promotional fees, and seemingly ignore how such an approach might affect the long-term viability of their businesses.

• Koppel noted that both news gatherers and politicians have become so addicted to polling data that they forget about the requirements of leadership; they follow the dictums of the polls rather than make value decisions about where they should be going.

Which seems like a pretty accurate description of how a lot of retailers work – focusing on data rather than customers, forgetting that numbers paint an incomplete picture of the customer and that it is only through some sort of human connection with the customer that real and effective relationships can be formed, with effective judgments made about what the customer needs and wants.

Koppel also addressed the issue of the possible avian flu pandemic, and suggested that retailers not be afraid of telling shoppers that they need to stockpile food at home. He said that rather than create panic, such an approach would actually be the "sensible" and "civilized" way to approach the possible crisis. "Panic is come if the avian flu hits," he said, and "problems only will arise if we don’t do this now."

One comment made by Koppel raised some hackles in the audience – and may not, in retrospect, stand up to examination.

In talking about the war on terrorism, Koppel noted that there have to be concerns about the safety of the food supply – and said that a large percentage of the honey imported into the United States comes from Lebanon, which also is home to Hezbollah, the militant/terrorist organization. The question, he said, is whether enough attention is being paid to where food comes from and how safe it is from tampering by terrorists.

Forget for the moment that this came dangerously close to suggesting that honey exporters are potential terrorists. FMI put one of its crack interns on the case – Lindsay Neuberger of Wake Forest University (who also happens to be the 18th ranked woman shot putter in the nation). And Neuberger found put that Koppel must have been thinking of another industry, since Lebanon exports virtually no honey to the US. (FMI CEO Tim Hammonds was expected to correct the record during his remarks at Monday's session.)
KC's View:
This is our 20th or 21st FMI – we've lost count – so the main thought running through our mind as we confronted the exhibit halls actually came from Shakespeare:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends…

The best part of the event for us was last evening's wine party at the always-terrific Bin 36, where we had the privilege to hang out with some 60 or so MNB users and enjoy conversation, food and the exchange of ideas. This is one of our favorite days of the year, because we're able to cement the real friendships that MNB has enabled us to make.

As always, by the way, the folks at Bin 36 did a great job with the wines…we all enjoyed a zesty and grapefruity 2004 Sauvignon Blanc, Domaine des Fontanelles from France, and a lovely and smooth 2004 blend of Garnacha, Tempranillo, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon called Ludovicus, from Spain.

We're already looking forward to next year.