Battle-Weary but Still Fighting, Independents Gather in Las Vegas

Intensely focused on running their stores and adjusting to the often-chaotic conditions of the coronavirus pandemic over the past 18 months, independent grocers from around the country took a few days off this week to gather in Las Vegas for a collective checkup that found them sharing hard learnings and seeking solutions to take back home.

Licking wounds they were not, insisted Greg Ferrara, CEO of the National Grocers Association, which hosted its Executive Conference and trade show Sept. 18-21 at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas.

“I think the message that independent grocers can take away from this is that over the last 18 months they’ve been on the front lines and had the most unusual business,” Ferrara said in an interview at the event. “Now at the NGA Show is the time to pick up the tactics, the lessons, the products and the services they need to continue earning that business going forward.”

The pandemic, Ferrara says, tested the resolve of member NGA companies, and despite difficult operating conditions and a business environment he says wasn’t necessarily fair to small operators, they ultimately realized sales and profit gains that the best of them will apply to solutions the event helped to present for them.

The show was the first live gathering of the association since February of 2020 in San Diego—one of the last industry events to escape disruption from the oncoming pandemic. It took place less than 2 miles up Las Vegas Boulevard from another industry-related show that was also getting its feet again—the technology-focused Groceryshop conference. This provided some vendors and retailers an opportunity to travel between show floors.

“As I’ve told people multiple times this week, the most important thing for independents is to figure out what their strategy is going to be and then approach it. So they’re looking at data, robotics—anything they can do.

“There’s a labor challenge going on right now,“ Ferrara continued. “We have got to more efficient with our labor, and then also make sure that the talent that we have in our stores is focused on differentiating for the customer. There’s a lot of great brands with a lot of great things going on here, both in terms of the education we’re offering, and then on the show floor for the technology that is out there. It’s just really an exciting time, and grocery stores are in a great place right now to be able to make some investments.”

The gathering also gave members a moment to reflect on competitive conditions they faced over the last year, strengthening the organization’s longstanding resolve to effect regulatory change. Earlier this year, NGA made headlines behind its call on the Federal Trade Commission to reel in what NGA interprets as anticompetitive behavior by so-called retail “power buyers” whose imposition of trade terms with vendors during the crisis often left independent grocers struggling to receive access to goods and prices their larger peers enjoyed.

Political conditions to progress on such change arrived with the new federal administration this year and appointment of antitrust scholar Lina Khan as commissioner of the FTC.

NGA is doing more than simply rattling cages. The organization sat in on an FTC panel discussion on the topic earlier this month, and Ferrara said he was confident that the expectation of progress was realistic.

“The pandemic really made this issue more transparent, [and] one that regulators and legislatures could actually understand—that was really big,” he said. “The second piece of it was timing: Congress on a bipartisan level is taking a hard, hard look at Big Tech, and that translates to our space as well, so the opportunity is there. The stars have aligned for the first time in decades.”

Ferarra’s remarks came moments after he took a turn throwing elbows onstage as a celebrity contestant at the NGA Show’s signature event, the Best Bagger contest. As though to make a show of his competitiveness, the CEO hopped onto the stage like a prizefighter entering the ring, strapping on a red-white-and-blue headband. His bagging ultimately fell short to a fellow combatant, Pamela Coy, owner of Wisconsin’s Viking Village Markets and the 2021 WGA Woman of the Year.

“As challenging as the pandemic has been, the industry has really been blessed,” Ferarra said. “It’s really given independents a lot of opportunity. A lot of folks rediscovered their independents. You can walk in, and you realize how important they are to the community, and the differentiation they offer: the specialty products, the local products and all that cool stuff. That worked out really well. So I think that the grocers are taking those benefits and reinvesting them back in their business.”




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