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Q&A: FMI CEO Leslie Sarasin on the key takeaways from FMI Connect 2015

6 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

Food retailers, wholesalers, suppliers and other food retail industry members met in Chicago to network, learn and engage at FMI Connect. We talked to Leslie G. Sarasin, FMI president and CEO, about the highlights from the show, which focused on catering to customers while improving operations and looking toward the future of the food retail industry.

What were the top three key takeaways from FMI Connect for members of the food retail industry?

FMI Connect focused on the imperatives of keeping ahead of the accelerating pace of change in food retail. Some of the catalysts driving this change include intense competition from new formats, the need for operational excellence, including speed to market, and meeting consumer expectations for transparency and customization — all of which can be enabled by technology. As I walked the Expo floor with our executive committee leadership, sat in on educational sessions and eavesdropped on hallway conversations, three themes were most apparent:

  1. Our customers may not always be right…but they’re never wrong. The U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends 2015 executive summary, which I highlighted during a keynote session at FMI Connect, focused on the changing value proposition among consumers –with value not being exclusively an economic proposition, but also one embracing beliefs and ethical standards. The Trends analysis demonstrates that as shoppers evolve, more of these consumers include wellness, non-GMO, food safety and animal welfare issues in their food shopping equation. It’s clear that as more people play a larger role in grocery shopping, the various definitions of “value”- not all of which are science-based – are increasingly difficult for our customer-service-driven businesses to target. In a sea of multiple values at play, providing options that address every customer’s set of concerns will continue to be the food retailer’s challenge and opportunity.
  2. Food retailers can be the solution center for family meals. Just as food retailers are being confronted with complex, fast-paced change, so are American families. The shape of the family has changed; the demands on family schedules have increased; and the combination has mounted an assault on that cornerstone of family time, the meal together. Families are looking for help and FMI believes their trusted local grocer can offer that help. We are urging food retailers to come together for the common cause of encouraging their customers to enjoy one more family meal each week at home than they are currently having. The social, health and economic benefits for both the family and the industry make this a no-brainer. The growing number of shoppers who’ve identified the consumption of fresh, less processed foods as their path to health and wellness would appreciate a convenient and variety-filled alternative that helps them avoid doing what — in their healthy heart of hearts — they’d rather not do, which is sacrifice nutrition and health for the sake of convenience.
  3. The pace of change is fast and furious. Competition is coming from all directions and from near and far, with traditional grocers competing for share of basket against restaurants, online outfits, mobile strategies, click-and-collect models, and even the local farmers’ markets. At FMI Connect, we explored new opportunities and encouraged the exploration of new potential partnerships, especially via Connect Business Exchange, or CBX. We designed CBX to solve business challenges by providing a format in which participants could reach beyond their normal range of trading partners and create opportunities for perceived competitors to become new allies. I hope to translate the success of CBX into new communications and marketing channels in the near future.

How will these issues guide food retailers through the rest of 2015?

I am confident that all the acknowledgements we’ve received from our members — both retail/wholesale and associate — to commit to promoting National Family Meals Month™ in September 2015, will result in a culmination of food retail resources and inspiration motivating families — however a family defines itself — to come together at home for one more family meal each week.

While September will generate surround sound on what retailers have been doing to better serve their customers with every 1.5 times per week these shoppers visit their grocery stores, FMI will push forward on its business agenda of furthering the voice of food retail around menu labeling regulations, implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act, workforce and sustainability issues, to name a few priorities.

How will they play into 2016, both in the industry overall and in next year’s FMI Connect event?

It’s well understood that food retailers, more than ever, will be positioned as curators of products and services — all according to a particular set of values or beliefs held by their shoppers. As the association representing more than 1,200 retailers and wholesalers, it’s imperative that we, in turn, curate member feedback in order to help our members prepare for and execute against these customer-centric strategies.

Based on what you saw at FMI Connect, what are the issues at the top of food retailers’ minds right now? And what issues are on deck?

Working in the food retail industry is similar to meteorology — but we’re arguably more often correct on our predictions! We need to be mindful of weather patterns, but always prepare for the next storm. As an association, next year will be politically-charged, so we’ll be anticipating what a new presidential administration will present for our industry. FMI keeps a steady eye on the horizon to know the eminent threats, but through our research and information services, we’ve also become more sophisticated in scanning the more far-reaching environment, tracking the patterns beginning to form further away and making educated projections on what new legislative, regulatory and trend-worthy conversations to engage in on behalf of our members. For instance, FSMA implementation and menu labelling may be front and center right now, but we must also watch changing weather patterns in government agency nutrition considerations and how other disciplines, such as environmental concerns, are beginning to shape definitions of wellness.


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