PMA members embrace NGA show opportunitiesLAS VEGAS — Along with record attendance and a 44% larger trade show floor, the National Grocers Association annual conference included more fresh produce exhibitors this year and the first-ever pre-show educational sessions.

For the third year, the Produce Marketing Association had a pavilion at the show. Both Peter Larkin, NGA president, and Anthony Barbieri, PMA’s vice president for business development said the relationship between the two organizations is growing and evolving.

“We had 20 exhibitors in the pavilion the first year,” Barbieri said. “This year we have 38 and we plan to be back next year.”

Larkin said most independent retailers don’t have the time or budgets to attend more than one trade show a year and they generally choose the NGA event, which logged more than 3,000 registrations this year.

During the opening session of the show, Larkin said the independent channel accounts for nearly 1% of the nation’s gross domestic product.

“A lot of the independents don’t have the chance to interact with produce growers and suppliers directly, so Anthony and I thought it might be a good fit,” Larkin said.

Barbieri said PMA’s presence at the independent grocers’ show came at the request of PMA members.The opportunity to interact with independent grocers was second only to government relations in a PMA survey, he said.

With the combined sales of independent grocers at $131 billion annually, they are bigger than the Kroger Co. and second only to Wal-Mart in the U.S., Larkin said, making it is easy to understand why the fresh produce industry wants to interact with them.

Most of the produce exhibitors echoed Larkin’s comments when describing why they attend the show.

Tim Hallows, western region manager for Mission Produce Inc., said independent grocers are a definite growth area. He said independents usually have more options and flexibility that large chains when it comes to buying produce.

Kent Beesley, one of three regional promotion directors for the Idaho Potato Commission, said having a booth at the NGA show allows the commission to meet with retailers that they don’t normally see because of time and distance limitations.

“This show is our only chance to meet with these retailers one-on-one,” Beesley said.

Jan Garrett, national trade relations manager for the California Strawberry Commission, agreed that having access to independent grocers in one location is an invaluable opportunity.

She said the commission can’t afford to travel across the country to visit independents so NGA is the best way to make those connections.

Richard Bird, grower and salesman for Beekist, San Diego, said this was the company’s second year to exhibit at the show. He was promoting the company’s plans to add California grapes to its offerings this year when he spoke with retailers.

Focus in some communities is shifting away from chains and toward independents, said Jody Okamoto of Melissa’s Produce, Los Angeles. This was the third year for Melissa’s to have a booth at the show and Okamoto said growth opportunities with independents are obvious.

“We have one independent in Las Vegas that carries 400 of our SKUs (stock-keeping units)” Okamoto said.