business news in context, analysis with attitude

Notes & comment by Kevin Coupe

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Stories abounded here at the 18th annual Executive Forum run by Portland State University's Center for Retail Leadership.

Laurie Demeritt, CEO of the Hartman Group, told a story about how, despite tough economic times that might have been expected to slow down consumer interest in local products that often can be more expensive, exactly the opposite has happened: 42 percent of shoppers say they are buying more local products, and 50 percent say they are buying the same amount as before the recession. Consumers, she said, are viewing food differently than they used to, and this is reflected in the expanded appeal of food seen as real, fresh and less processed. "This is an advancing trend," Demeritt said, "and nobody is going back."

And then, in a panel discussion that I was privileged to moderate, three retail buyers - Paul Enderle of Kroger/Fred Meyer, Denise Breyley of Whole Foods, and Ryan White of New Seasons Markets - all emphasized how important it is for local vendors looking to get shelf space to tell their stories effectively, to talk about how and why they products are manufactured locally, and what makes them authentic and differentiated. Telling a compelling story to the retailer, they said, is the essence of helping that retailer to tell the story to shoppers.

In another panel discussion that I moderated, two retailers - Rob Stern of Starbucks and Vincson Green of Target - joined with Robin Russell, an executive search expert to talk about what companies are looking for when hiring both entry level and executive level employees. Again, the emphasis was on story - that candidates need to understand how to craft and build their own stories,need to understand the story being told by the companies interviewing them, and then match those stories up in a way that shows what they bring to the table.

David Lundahl, CEO/founder of InsightsNow, delivered a presentation on "the power of moments," suggesting that retailers need to drill down deeper than ever to understand that consumers can be motivated ... and, after all, moments strung together become often complex stories about what specific shoppers want.

And finally Sam Martin, president/CEO of A&P, came to the Pacific Northwest to tell the story of the troubled retailer, emphasizing that the culture there had become so corrupted that mediocrity was accepted, lack of accountability was standard, and lack of achievement was routine. It took bankruptcy and and economic quicksand to force a near complete replacement of the management team and the installation of new executives who understood the importance of a new cultural story - one that embraces engagement, evaluation, training and recognition.

One terrific story that Martin told was how, when he got to A&P, he discovered that top executives had a parking lot closest to the front door, where a mechanical arm stopped anyone else from parking there. (Execs were also driving expensive foreign company cars - the absolute wrong message to send, he said.) That arm was taken down, he said, and a new story was told: if you want the best parking space, no matter who you are, you have to get to work early.

All compelling stories, speaking to the importance - whether you are selling a product, a cultural imperative, or yourself - of creating a strong and enduring narrative.

And exactly what I've come to expect of events run at PSU - sessions that are provocative, timely and thoughtful.
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