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Retail Seminars, Tough Talk Mark MARTA Meeting

The MARTA Cooperative of America’s biannual meeting and buying show, held here last month at the Scottsdale Princess Resort, was a no-nonsense affair that was short on glitz and long on the nuts and bolts of successful independent retailing.

Eschewing the entertainers, celebrity speakers and rousing kick-off spectacles that have become almost mandatory at most buying group conventions, the $2.1 billion co-op crammed its tightly-packed itinerary with merchandising meetings, best practice sessions, group business, CE primers from Toshiba’s marketing VP Scott Ramirez and LG’s sales VP Bob Perry, and a 71-exhibitor trade show.

Indeed, little mention was even made of the group’s 40th anniversary, with the meeting instead dedicated to Chuck Oswald, principal of Appliance Center of Toledo, who succumbed to cancer in June.

Among the meeting’s highlights, the 100-dealer group welcomed its newest member, Big Screen Store of Baltimore, Md., and announced an ambitious recruitment drive that seeks to add 12 new dealers each year for the next two years. The effort is intended to counter “tremendous” recruitment pressure from the Nationwide Marketing Group, and to offset a net loss of some 20 members over the past five years.

MARTA also set a membership ceiling of 150 dealers, which would be large enough to provide sufficient group funding and critical buying mass, but small enough to maintain efficient operations and personalized service, explained executive director Warren Mann.

Mann, who received a standing ovation from the dealers for his accomplishments at MARTA’s helm, noted that the group “generally seems to be doing well compared to others.” But he also took a get-tough stance with vendors who cow-tow to national chains, some of which have been breaking MAP.

“Alexander the Great said that people becomes slaves because they don’t say no,” he told the membership. “If all of the buying groups and Sears cancelled their orders” with appliance vendors who “sell Lowe’s, they wouldn’t have, and we wouldn’t have this problem.”

“Manufacturers did what they liked for the last few years,” Mann later told TWICE, “but do they like what they did? You can have market anarchy or market order. They’re going to adolescent national merchants who don’t obey the rules or follow MAP policy and who are looking for ways to cheapen manufacturers’ goods. MAP violations make vendors look powerless.

“We’re now better prepared to fight the nastiness created by vendors’ amateur decisions,” he continued. “In the old days we would have complained if a national account broke MAP. Now we’ll fight back [with even lower prices] on a regional basis, or walk away from the program. We know more about products and service, and can offer free delivery, installation or extended warranties. Our guys have many levels of tools with which to compete.”

Mann backed up his line-in-the-sand stance by noting that while Nationwide does nearly six times more business with Whirlpool than MARTA, Nationwide’s average Whirlpool sales are $200,000 per dealer, compared to $1 million per MARTA member. MARTA is also the fastest-growing Frigidaire group in the country, with a No. 1 share of the brand and the vendor’s largest group program, he said.

Despite the tough talk, MARTA’s chairman Roger Van Vrede, principal of Van Vreede TV & Appliance, reminded members not to get complacent with their businesses. “The market continually changes, and you need to make sure you change along with it and not get stuck in old ways,” he said. “Toys ‘R’ Us is questioning if it should be in the toy business. Is your business model working? When did you last review it? Have you changed it in the last 10 years? Do you have a succession plan?”

Added one member, “Having no succession plan in place is gonna kill a lot more independent retailers than Lowe’s.”

In other MARTA news, the group:

* elected Beiter’s John Grant, Stewart’s Terry Stewart, A.K. Nahas’ Dan Nahas and DeSears’ John Rice to the board of directors;

* will explore the possibility of adding furniture manufacturers to its vendor matrix;

* announced a second annual best practices and core vendor gathering next year at the Turnberry Hotel in Aventura, Fla.;

* and scheduled its next group meeting for Feb. 28-March 1, 2005 at the Gaylord Palms Resort in Orlando, Fla., to be followed by a return to the Scottsdale Princess next August..