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It’s not too early to think about NACDS Marketplace

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The first registration materials for the 2010 National Association of Chain Drug Stores Annual Meeting came in the mail last week. The stylishly packaged packet of information made a very good case for why the meeting promises to be as compelling and necessary as its predecessors have unfailingly been.

The feeling here, however, is that the early, though timely, emphasis on the 2010 Annual Meeting comes at the expense of an equally important NACDS event that follows the Annual Meeting by just six weeks: the Marketplace Conference.

As any NACDS participant, observer or booster has known for some time, the Marketplace is not as necessary as it once was. For many retailers and suppliers, the conference is too expensive, comes too closely on the heels of the Annual Meeting and offers too little that is valuable or unique to compel them to sign up. Adding to the perceived drawbacks is the fact that next year’s conference will be held in San Diego, not the favored venue for companies located in the eastern half of the country, though one that many retailers prefer.

For its part, NACDS appears irrevocably locked into the date (June 5–8) as well as the location for the 2010 Marketplace. That doesn’t mean, however, that the association can’t come up with compelling incentives to persuade reluctant retailers and suppliers to attend. Here are some suggestions:

• Convening an NACDS board or executive committee meeting on the eve of or during the Marketplace would make a huge difference, attracting retailers and suppliers that would otherwise stay home. Encouraging the board or executive committee members to remain in San Diego for the meeting’s opening day — or even to participate in the meeting by holding a town hall session or some other forum during the event — would also add attendance.

• Encouraging member retailers to expand the number of merchants in attendance would perforce increase supplier participation. However, it’s also true that retailers need some incentives to attend, with senior merchants having only recently returned from the Annual Meeting in Palm Beach, Fla. The good news is that the association, and the retailers that most strongly support and believe in the Marketplace, have seven months to come up with compelling incentives, especially for category managers whose meaningful exposure to the supplier community to date has been limited to the ECRM agenda.

• Expanding retailer attendance and involvement would most easily be achieved by expanding the roster of retail segments and companies encouraged to attend the Marketplace, a step that is not only advisable but necessary if the conference is to reassert itself as the premier merchandising event in mass retailing. It’s no secret, for example, that the dollar store segment is currently the most prosperous and exciting in retailing. Even though suppliers increasingly find their way to Charlotte and Nashville to meet with Family Dollar and Dollar General merchants, dollar store merchandising staffs would clearly benefit from exposure to the merchandise available at the Marketplace. They only need be provided with some serious reasons to attend.

At bottom, the Marketplace remains a compelling event for retailers and suppliers that are willing to make the effort and put in the time. Those retailers and suppliers who understand its value and seriously attempt to capitalize on the many opportunities it affords have found it an invaluable and unsurpassed opportunity to do business. But too often today it has become an afterthought, the subject of too much speculation and debate, too much questioning, too many meetings, too much negativity and too few solid ideas for making a key NACDS event even more significant.

What’s needed is not more discussion, not more debate, not more criticism, but some boldly creative ideas for advancing this meeting’s agenda, defining its purpose and encouraging retailers and suppliers that have increasingly questioned or shunned Marketplace to give it a second or third look.

Truth is, the real question here is what NACDS and the mass retailing community it represents stand for. Is the retailer/supplier segment that NACDS heads a cohesive industry? Or is it merely a collection of small and large businesses that happen to find it convenient to belong to a retail trade organization that, incidentally, offers a merchandising conference each year?

The distinction is a critical one. There are many reasons to dismiss this meeting at a time when national retailers and major suppliers appear to have little in common with regional retailers and smaller suppliers, when supplier teams routinely meet with key staffers at major retailers, when big and small apparently have little interest in each other.

But that’s not what a retail community or NACDS are all about. In theory, they’re about involvement, about providing access, about community, about commitment, about making the industry a better place. But those values have become far more elusive as national retailers increasingly shun the offerings of smaller suppliers, while major suppliers show little interest in the opportunities offered by regional retailers.

Until this mind-set and myopic focus change, until NACDS succeeds in recreating the retail community of which Marketplace was once an integral part, the conference will continue to lose its luster, its importance, its retailer and supplier commitment — and its attendance.

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