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MARTA Cuts Meeting Short During Tragedy

The MARTA Cooperative of America cut short its buying show and conference here earlier this month in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

The catastrophes, which came on the opening morning of the group’s buying fair, transformed the show floor at the Opryland Hotel into a news and transportation center, as attendees gathered by large screen TVs in vendor booths, and an impromptu ride-sharing board was created.

“We shifted into a support organization,” said executive director Warren Mann. “We needed to get people out of there.”

To that end, MARTA chartered a bus for its Ohio contingent, and assisted dealers and vendors as they snapped up any remaining rental cars and scrambled to secure seats on departing Greyhound and Amtrak lines. Some attendees rented limousines, and one dealer reportedly purchased a Jeep.

Mann himself eventually made his way home to New Jersey in a borrowed rental car, while the balance of MARTA’s team waited four days for flights to resume back to home base in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Mann said the show would not be reconvened at a later date, as all unfinished business is being concluded via e-mail. The next MARTA event will be held Jan. 30 through Feb. 1 in Orlando, Fla.

Although the disasters curtailed the buying portion of the show, the group began convening the preceding weekend and managed to cover much on the MARTA agenda. Among developments at the convention, MARTA announced that it would eliminate its annual June show, thereby reducing its thrice-yearly meeting schedule to two annual events, much as its rival buying groups do.

“Three shows is too many,” Mann acknowledged. Dealer polls had indicated that “members used to like it as recently as two years ago, but support has been eroding ever since.”

At the same time, MARTA will encourage all individual members to attend the Consumer Electronics Show, which in previous years was considered a committee venue only. Similarly, MARTA has targeted next year’s Kitchen/Bath Industry Show (K/BIS) and the CEDIA Expo as must-see events for member dealers.

In other MARTA news, the group is welcoming two new members to its ranks, bringing its dealer tally to 110. Persinger’s is a 100-year-old West Virginia distributor led by president Vernice Deskins. The name of the second newcomer is expected to be announced shortly, pending final paperwork.

On the subject of membership, Mann has a bone to pick with Nationwide, the nation’s largest buying group, which has hired professional recruiters to lure away his dealers. MARTA members have been individually targeted with tales of the group going out of business, of nearly half its membership switching to Nationwide, and with promises of a dues-free first year, he reported.

Mann believes the aggressive recruitment represents an effort to replace the volume that Nationwide lost after several of its largest members, including Heilig-Meyers, went bankrupt, and doesn’t believe that the group’s higher dues will result in better deals or more business for dealers. “It’s naive to believe that buying groups are the real drivers of dealers’ business. We’re an embellishment, and additional tool.”

MARTA members may also be disinclined to leave amid their solid, group-wide sales performance. Prior to this month’s terrorist attacks, the group’s brown goods business was up double digits in JVC, Thompson and Toshiba, while white goods enjoyed single-digit growth led by Frigidaire’s Gallery line and strength in Whirlpool’s KitchenAid dishwashers. MARTA also plans to make a strong commitment to KitchenAid laundry products going forward, due in part to the brand’s favorable pattern of distribution.

Looking ahead, Mann believes that depending on world events, retailers will get past the short-term slowdown as the government pumps money into the economy, and consumers continue to replace their old washers, dryers and refrigerators.

“White goods is necessity buying, it’s pretty stable, and as long as new home construction continues, the replacement business is there,” he said. “The TV business is also very stable, and there’s still an inexorable drive to digital TV.”