Evolve and Thrive: Managing Disruption through Association Collaboration and Differentiation

There’s never been a better time to reflect on today’s retail industry, with perspective on where we’ve been and insight into how to evolve and thrive. Earlier this month, I had the honor of joining the 2021 FIAE Annual Convention to share my perspective on collaboration, managing disruption and driving future growth in our ever-changing industry.

During my keynote, I presented three key elements that every association, retailer, wholesaler, and supplier must keep top of mind as they navigate the disruptive changes and plan for future growth.  Specifically, is my ______ (product, service, technology, value proposition):




These three words have been the cornerstones of much of my career work and passion for the industry ever since I read the book Zag by Marty Neumeier. Neumeier speaks to the idea of “only-ness”, which he describes as the ability to complete the sentence: “Our ____ (blank) is the only ____ (blank) that ____ (blank)”. I’ve spent my career in a variety of leadership roles within the consumer-packaged goods (CPG) industry and have been involved with some big successes and epic failures caused in part – or in whole – by those three words.

That said, as COVID-19 has so clearly reminded us, sometimes life gets in the way – economic meltdowns and pandemics happen, and many life events are out of our immediate control.  Our best efforts at a D/R/S focus may simply not be enough. 

Success is far from guaranteed in an environment as disrupted as ours. Many associations are fighting for the same pool of member money, the retail industry is under relentless assault from the “Bigs” and we are all adapting to consumer and corporate preferences post-COVID.

It’s called “disruption” for a reason and standing around waiting for something to happen is not an option. If we’re serious about survival, the time has come to be intentional about innovation. We’ve built a platform called Retail Tomorrow with the specific goal to connect the industry to “what’s next”. Throughout the years, I’ve liked calling our focus “innovation for the rest of us”.

If you’re reading this, you’re likely in the retail or grocery business, and your customers – and, by extension, you – are under relentless pressure. From inflation and supply chain challenges to managing customer expectations and the emergence of e-commerce and delivery platforms, how will you respond?

As an association, we have subscribed to a belief in “uncommon partnerships” and I’m an advocate for more of them. It’s time for collaboration and coalitions. The days of “going it alone” are GONE.  What organization is complementary or synergistic to YOUR focus?  Who can you call or email TODAY to discuss ideas or form uncommon partnerships?

In this post-pandemic world, nothing is the same and all the assumptions that we once had need to be challenged.

I subscribe to the idea that experience is everything, regardless of where it is happening: in-store, in-conference or online.

Here’s what we’ve learned during our journey.

  1. Don’t assume member budgets are static. They’re not.
  2. Expedient isn’t always good but taking the long view can be equally painful.
  3. Look for the lessons hiding in plain sight.
  4. Define innovation and actively and intentionally seek it – don’t sit around waiting for someone to call you.
  5. Remember the three key elements: Differentiated, Relevant, and Sustainable.
  6. Challenge yourself and your team to move fast and take relevant risks.
  7. Be active in how you MANAGE – this is a contact sport, and you’ll get dirty and beat-up.
  8. Through tenacity and teamwork, you will undoubtedly SURVIVE.

This opportunity to present the keynote address in front of this audience felt particularly relevant, as our association’s chapter will come to a close at the end of this year. While disappointing, our board and I believe this is the right decision at the right time – for our industry, members, and team – as we all continue navigating the fast-evolving retail and business landscape.

With disruption and challenges, comes opportunity. And we are looking forward to seeing how the retail world innovates for the future.

The question remains: Are you ready to embrace the disruption?