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Sheridan: Independent Grocers Keep The American Dream Alive

Sheridan and Larkin at NGA

“The independent grocer represents the American Dream fulfilled, and it is your entrepreneurial spirit that keeps our communities vibrant,” said Joe Sheridan, president and COO of Wakefern Food Corp. and chairman of the National Grocers Association (NGA) board, as he shared the stage with NGA President and CEO Peter Larkin on Feb. 10 at the association’s annual show in Las Vegas. “This is where the independents of the United States come together and tell their story.”

When he took the role as chairman last year, Sheridan laid out several objectives: recruiting new members, collaborating with other industry associations, engaging vendor partners, enhancing the value of NGA membership and getting more engagement from NGA members. He and Larkin gave show attendees an overview of how the association has worked to meet those objectives over the last 12 months.

NGA added more than 100 new retail and wholesale members and 75 new suppliers/manufacturers while maintaining a 90 percent retention rate. The association has members in every state in the union, Sheridan said, including Hawaii and Alaska, but there is room to grow.

The association made collaboration a priority, and partnered with academia, other trade organizations, suppliers and vendors to bring solutions to its members.

“We formed coalitions when it was in the best interest of our membership,” Sheridan said. “When we collaborate or form a coalition, we choose our partner wisely, selecting the right partner for each specific initiative.”

In the area of food safety, NGA collaborated with the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and Food Marketing Institute (FMI). On tax reform and labor issues, it chose the S Corporation Association and the National Federation of Independent Business.

NGA now has four suppliers serving on its board of directors. Through its Trading Partners Advisory Council, NGA revamped its B2B meeting process and doubled the number of business sessions since its last conference.

So far, eight initiatives have come from the work NGA is doing on the Member Value Proposition (MVP) Project as the organization asks its members how to best serve them, Larkin said. NGA is expanding its government relations, improving trading partner and industry relations, adding more share groups, looking at the technology that NGA members need, reviewing its operational programs and services, expanding its education and research and communicating with members in ways that call them to action.

In government relations, NGA has added staff as well as outside contract lobbyists. It also brought in additional legislative and regulatory expertise in healthcare and labor. It established a political action committee to “help us carry your voice to the halls of Congress,” Larkin said. “We have definitely increased the NGA profile on Capitol Hill and we will continue to do just that.”

Another way it has sought to increase the value of membership is by unveiling its new online education center, which offers 95 different courses in seven languages for store-level employees for one flat price. Grocers sign up, pay one fee and their employees can take as many courses as needed.

NGA also revitalized the Grocers Research and Education Foundation (GREF), a separate organization focusing on bringing new people into the supermarket industry. A new board of directors is in place with a goal to ramp up the foundation’s efforts.

NGA also has offered more webinars and is launching a live learning center where members can access recordings from any of its conferences and meetings online.

It also worked with FMS Solutions on a compensation and benefits survey. In partnership with FMS Solutions, NGA will offer a standalone financial management conference May 7-9 in Nashville.

Quantifying the value of the independent grocer

Larkin said that he is asked one question more than any other: “Just how big is the independent channel in the United States? Wages, taxes, whatever. How big is it?”

“We know we create jobs. We pay wages. We pay taxes,” Sheridan said. “We help millions of consumers provide wholesome meals to their families. From the diversity of the products we sell—you get this better than anyone—we create competition. We create competition in our community, and then we give back.”

But all that independent grocers and wholesalers do has never been quantified, and that’s what NGA and its sponsors set out to do. Its board approved an economic impact study sponsored by GREF, Mondelez International, Shelby Publishing Co. and Nielsen that will soon be released. NGA is working with John Dunham & Associates to finish it.

“Ladies and gentlemen, you know it and I know it, but for the first time ever, we’re going to have the facts to back up what we all know, and that is that we are one of the biggest job creators. We pay a lot of taxes,” Larkin said. “We have an incredible impact on the economy and the fabric of life in the United States of America, and shortly we’re going to be able to share that with you, so stay tuned. I’m very, very excited about it.”

NGA members want help with new technology

One issue was key in the MVP survey: technology. Toward that end, NGA is partnering with Gary Hawkins, a former independent grocer who has become a technology expert, and started the Center for Advancing Retail Technology (CART) to create two entities.

The first is the NGA Innovation Center, which will be a network of independent grocery stores around the U.S.

“What we’re trying to do is say, ‘Look, the independent grocers are the real innovators in this industry,’” Larkin said. “We know that. We’ve known it for years. But we want to advertise that. We want to go out to our supplier friends whether they’re CPG companies or design firms or merchandising firms or whatever. So if you have an idea, if you have something that you want to test in a real-world environment, you come to us because we can match you up with the type of store, the number of stores in any geographical location you’re looking for, and we are going to help view those live-world testings, get the best practices and share them with you.”

The second is the NGA Solutions Center.

“What we want to have is a central resource of technology expertise to help our members assess where they are, what are their needs, help them develop a road map and give them procurement assistance to help them in their journey to get to where they want to be,” Larkin said.

Another technology initiative, and the one Larkin said he is most excited about, is Personiphi, a new company Hawkins and a partner are forming that will work with NGA to leverage the size and scope of association member companies to aggregate customer-specific analytics. The goal is to deliver personalized, customer-specific promotional offers.

Sheridan lists new objectives for 2013

Sheridan was asked about industry trends and he gave one overarching answer: the rate of change. Everyone, he said, is seeing it and feeling it in real time, and that’s the beauty of it.

“Whether you’re PepsiCo, Mondelez, Kraft, Unilever, on the supplier side, you’re feeling it,” he said. “If you’re Kroger, Amazon, Walmart, Costco, you’re feeling it. So it’s real-time for all of us.”

But it is the independent grocer that is the most adaptable and resourceful, he said.

“We can fly at 30,000 feet and we can fly at 3 feet. We can do what we have to do community by community, store by store, associate by associate, quicker, better faster than any larger chains,” Sheridan said. “That’s our beauty.”

Last year he asked members to get engaged; this year, he wants to see it taken up a notch.

“Share your ideas. Share your best practices,” Sheridan said. “Get involved in one of the share groups that we’re talking about. Support our new technology initiatives.

Make us better. Push your organization to respond to you. This is a member-driven organization.

“And please respond to the NGA Action Alerts. We have to let Washington or the state or town or county know what our point of view is, and that’s where the economic stuff’s going to happen, because there’s nothing better than that human relationship that we have with our own politicians.

“There’s no magic. There’s no pixie dust in life,” Sheridan said. “There’s good, hardworking people who have visions and dreams. You can feel the passion and the energy of being an independent. It’s healthy. The dream is alive. You’re the dream.”

In the feature photo at top: Joe Sheridan and Peter Larkin.


More NGA Show photos can be found here. Check back for updates and additional photos from the show throughout the week.


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