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RETAIL VIEW: Reaching consumers through new avenues

The successful marketer, whether retailer or produce supplier, better start planning to reach consumers in new ways because traditional marketing avenues are losing their effectiveness.

Today's consumers are much different than consumers of years past, and hence they respond to different marketing techniques and they are congregating at different locations. While this general statement is true for all generations, it is especially true for younger consumers: in their teens, 20s or 30s.

A seminar at the recent Produce Marketing Association convention in San Diego explored some of the new methods retailers and brand advertisers can use to reach the consuming public. Topping the list was the concept of an e- community. Virtually any company can launch an e-community and, when done right, it is a very inexpensive method of marketing to what should be your most committed customers.

Bill Trumpfheller, president of the public relations firm of Nuffer, Smith, Tucker Inc., explained the e-community concept and the success his clients have had in using the Internet to reach their customers. He said that many people have turned to the worldwide web as their primary source for information. "It has become the 21st century's water cooler or knitting circle," he said.

People gather around it to discuss the news, talk about sports, find recipes and get tips for their child-rearing problems. And while it is true that to the younger generations the Internet is second nature -- something on which they have been reared -- he said that the fastest-growing group of users by percentage is seniors.

For marketers, Mr. Trumpfheller said that the Internet offers great opportunities. "It gives us the opportunity to push information [to our customers] and create a connection one-on-one with hundreds of thousands of people at the same time."

And most important for retailers and suppliers in the food industry, research has shown that food and beverage information is among the more popular topics on the Internet. The public relations executive took the crowd through the success his company has had creating an e-community for users of the very unglamorous "WD-40" product. The WD-40 Fan Club has thousands of members all over the world who now share information about the uses of the product and are a ready-made and willing group for any WD-40 promotion that the company would like to launch. The company, in fact, has used information garnered from this fan club about uses for the product in its marketing program.

Mr. Trumpfheller said that if WD-40 can create a base of loyal customers, a retailer of top-notch food or a shipper of a great produce product can do just as well if not better.

In fact, also on the dais was John Shelford of the newly renamed Naturipe Farms, whose firm has just launched a new web site and is initiating an e- community. He said that the company will use the web site to gain consumer trust for its brand and its products.

He told The Produce News in a subsequent interview that his goal is to build an e-community of 50,000 loyal Naturipe Farm customers within three years. Naturipe has launched its web site with many consumer tips and recipes and expects to create on-line coupons to build its list and test the effectiveness of that type of marketing.

Mr. Trumpfheller said that his experiences have shown that on-line coupons are redeemed by e-community members at a rate much greater than typical redemption rates. He called the members of the WD-40 e-community "product evangelists," as their membership in the club has shown that they are not only loyal users but also promoters of the product.

In addition to being targeted, they also can be mined for their opinions of various new products or marketing strategies launched by the firm. Any company, he said, could do the same thing. Once an e-community is in place, a company can get instant research within a very short time period on almost any concept it has.

E-communities, however, were only one of the new marketing trends and tools that Mr. Trumpfheller advocated during the seminar. He said that other successful ways to market to consumers in today's environment are through word of mouth, wireless text messaging, blogs and podcasts. Word of mouth has become an effective way to reach the young as they are well connected to each other. If a buzz is created for any particular product, the young disseminate that information almost instantly around the globe through the Internet.

Another speaker, Jon Hauptman of Willard Bishop Consulting, agreed that new marketing angles are needed to reach today's consumers. He discussed some of the in-store marketing and merchandising programs that have worked for the supermarket industry around the country. He listed the top 10 ideas to which he has been exposed, including in-store television and radio, interactive grocery carts, talking shelf tags, and in-store solution centers.

As for in-store television monitors, Mr. Hauptman said that they have proved to be very effective. "Thirty-eight percent of shoppers actually pause to watch [the commercials], and of those who stop, 75 percent say they are more inclined to buy the product," he said.

Interactive carts can produce the same results on a one-on-one basis as the consumer moves through the store. The cart's computer can be programmed and equipped with a global positioning system that can alert the user to specials as he or she goes up and down the aisles.

The in-store kiosks where consumers can come to get health information, recipes or other food-related news have proved very popular with consumers, particularly those with a health-and-wellness-based theme.

Another effective retail marketing strategy according to the research expert is "selling stories rather than product." Mr. Hauptman said that Trader Joe's is a big proponent of this as the retailer uses its weekly flyers and radio advertising to give the story behind the product and does not actually just push the product itself.

On the horizon, Mr. Hauptman said, is cell phone text messaging and radio frequency identification tracking. He said that the technology exists to send a text message to a cell phone as it gets near a store or even near a product within a store. While many would consider that type of marketing intrusive, Mr. Hauptman said that since it is possible, it will probably be done.

It is also possible to put an RFID chip in virtually any product and track that product all the way home to the consumer's refrigerator or pantry shelf - and then to the garbage once it is consumed. This could allow a retailer to know when its customers are out of a particular product. Currently, placing RFID chips in individual food products is very expensive, and, like cell phone text messaging, very intrusive. But again, if the technology exists to do it, it is not a giant leap to believe some firm will capitalize on it.

While many consumers are wary of giving too much information to their retailer, others are not. Mr. Hauptman said that numerous retailers are using retailer shopping cards as a way to get detailed information about their consumers and then market to their individual preferences. He told of one supermarket that target-markets to its club card customers, designing specific promotions for each customer based on his or her buying habits.