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Notes and comment from the Content Guy...

LAS VEGAS - There is an inherent sense of unreality when , on the way to the National Grocers Association (NGA) annual show each morning, one has to pass a “Kardashian Khaos” store in the Mirage Hotel here. (The economy must be getting better if people can afford to buy glitter t-shirts bearing the names and images of people who contribute absolutely nothing to the culture other than reality television programming and fodder for tabloid headlines.)

That said, there were a number of things that I heard yesterday that surprised me, making me wonder if my understanding of reality is different from actual existence.

Like the moment when Phil Lempert suggested in his early morning presentation that statistics show that “41 percent of all meals prepared at home are being prepared by the dad.” Really? Four out of ten at-home meals are made by a guy?

I have to admit that I was shocked by that number. I’ll accept it on faith, but it is a lot higher than I would have expected. (Even twenty percent would have surprised me.) But if we accept that number, then a mainstream food retailing business has an enormous opportunity that it is not taking advantage of - marketing to these men with stores and departments that cater to the way they see the world. Most marketers still refer to the supermarket shopper as “she,” but it sounds like this could soon be an antiquated conceit.

Phil Lempert also surprised me with his prognostication that supermarkets may start offering their version of “layaway plans,” which will allow people to essentially bank small amounts of money each week with their local food retailer, building up a balance that they then will be able to spend on big events without taking a big chunk out of distressed weekly budgets.

Really? If retailers can convince people to do this, more power to them. And I suppose that the existence of the Starbucks card - which essentially does the same thing with automatic reloads - speaks to the possibility that, properly marketed, this kind of concept can catch on. Though it would seem to work against another prognostication, that consumers will continue to get smarter about their shopping habits, since simply handing money over to the retailer so it can get interest on it, virtually saving or investing it yourself, isn;t the smartest thing in the world to do.

I was also caught off guard by something that single-store retailer Rob Santoni, of Baltimore, said in the panel discussion that I moderated about marketing to low-income communities. Each year, Santoni said, his store sells $3.3 million in lottery tickets ... meaning that even consumers in the toughest circumstances are able to find a dollar to gamble on the an act of faith - that one of these days they may win the lottery. (Santoni said his store has actually had one million-dollar winner.)

But then, I got totally blown away by Juvenal Chavez, president of Mi Pueblo, a company with 21 stores in distressed communities in Northern California. Chavez said that he viewed the buying of lottery tickets as being the ultimate abandonment of faith, that people who buy lottery tickets have given up on the idea that they can earn their way to prosperity. And Chavez said that as a matter of conscience, he refuses to sell lottery tickets in his stores ... and won’t sell cigarettes, either. People of limited means should not be buying such things, he said, and he is not going to be complicit by selling them.

And finally, Pat Burns, of Philadelphia’s The Fresh Grocer, acknowledged that operating in inner city neighborhoods and food deserts can be economically challenging, but suggested that such stores provide a kind of “moral profit” that exists less at more middle-class or upscale stores.

Really? I’ve been doing this a long time, and I have to say that I don’t often hear retailers talk about “moral profit,” or suggest that they should be making value judgments about what to sell in their stores. It happens, but not often. I’m impressed, but surprised.

In another general session,about social media growth, Craig Elston, senior vice president of The Integer Group, said something that seemed to resonate with the independent grocers in the audience - that “social media allows big players to have a localized discussion” with shoppers, which takes away one of the advantages that independent retailers often claim. (This was part of a broader discussion focusing on the social media study currently being done by the Coca-Cola Retailing Research Council, which Michael Sansolo has been referring to in recent weeks.)

Elston said that the growth of social medias means that retailers need to ask themselves the following questions:

What role can you play for your shoppers?

How can you facilitate your communities?

How can you add value to your communities?

And while Elston was specifically referring to online communities, it seems to me that these questions can be thought of in a broader context, and are at the heart of how every retailer should operate ... especially independent retailers, who have their own challenges.

BTW...the annual NGA Consumer Panel Report was released yesterday, conducted by Phil Lempert’s and sponsored by Valassis, and among the major findings were:

• “Stores that help consumers feel more comfortable in this stressful economy will be better positioned to build shopping frequency and spending amounts.”

• “Most consumers don't focus exclusively on low prices when selecting a primary supermarket.  For the fourth year in a row, low prices as being ‘very important’ slid, coming in at 39 percent in 2012, down from 51 percent in 2009.

• “Shoppers are not exclusively loyal to their preferred store. More than three-quarters said that they would at least try out a new store in their neighborhood, especially if it was of their preferred size.”

• “Stores supporting humanitarian causes are increasingly popular with consumers. Nearly 57 percent of U.S. adults would pay up to 2 percent more to buy food in stores that support causes they believe in, with 10 percent willing to pay up to 5 percent more. Causes that consumers want grocers to support include fighting childhood hunger and education issues.”
KC's View: