by Michael Sansolo

LAS VEGAS - Amid all the concerns of new competitions, changing customer habits and the encroaching power of technologically enabled shopping, independent grocers apparently have many causes for optimism. That was the takeaway from new research conducted for and presented at Monday’s general session of the National Grocers Association.

Titled “Digital Disruption: Understanding, Adaption, and Persistence Equals Real Growth,” the new research from Nielsen and the Harris Poll featured a panel of retailers who are finding creative ways to build customer loyalty and sales. The conclusion was pretty straightforward - that progressive independents can succeed by focusing on their inherent strengths as local businesses and by better serving emerging customer desires.

The research made the point that taken together, independent operators account for more than 21,000 stores and $130 billion in sales. The retail panelists would later use that aggregate number to argue for great support and attention from the supplier community.

In addition, the research and panelists argued that strong focus on consumer needs, especially an emphasis on high quality fresh foods and a desire to eat healthier, will help insulate independents from competition with e-commerce players. In fact, the group argued that the current period of retail metamorphosis doesn’t guarantee Armageddon or doom of any king. Rather, the prediction was made that successful retailers and manufacturers will balance and execute omnichannel strategies flawlessly.

While some might consider the positive attitude misguided or downright delusional, the message of optimism has been repeated throughout the combined IGA and NGA conferences thanks to growing customer interest and awareness in supporting local businesses. In fact, the annual Creative Choice competition (which I host on stage) showed two interesting aspects of aggressive action on the part of smaller operators that might bolster this optimism. The competition drew nearly 450 entries this year, a jump of 50 percent from 2017, and the panel of judges was nearly unanimously in pronouncing the entries far stronger than in any recent year.

However, while study results like “two-thirds (64%) of Independent Shoppers are very/extremely satisfied with their local supermarket” and “over 80% of shoppers prefer their local store to an online alternative” may seem reassuring if you are an independent, it actually may be more important for retailers not to feel satisfied or complacent about these numbers. They may be accurate, or they may be illusory. But even if they’re accurate, they almost certainly are temporary.

In other NGA news…

• The annual Best Bagger Championship contest was held yesterday, and the winner was Trevor DeForest of Fareway Food Stores, located in Maquoketa, Iowa. DeForest defeated 22 other best bagger finalists from across the nation to claim a grand prize of $10,000.

• The NGA convention, which will relocate to San Diego from Las Vegas in 2019, concludes today.