NEW ORLEANS – In an industry whose sales have been surpassed by foodservice, an industry rocked by the Amazons of the world, disruption is everywhere. At the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association’s (IDDBA) annual show in New Orleans, the message was clear: to deal with disruption coming at you from the outside, you need to disrupt right back.

Disruption was everywhere at IDDBA ’18, which enjoyed record numbers of attendees and exhibitors — in the products and discussions on the show floor, in the keynote addresses and Show and Sell talks.

Another theme resonating throughout the show was the need to treat employees well and give them the tools to innovate and succeed — an especially important point, attendees and presenters said, in today’s tight labor market.

Speaker Jim McDermott, SAP’s CEO, said in an IDDBA Show and Sell Q and A that he logged 15 miles on the floor during his two days at the show. What he came away with was the sense that “this is the salt of the earth, the people holding this whole country together. I don’t think there’s an awareness of how important your industry is.”

But, he said, it must change. “I believe this industry needs to disrupt itself, fast, or it will get disrupted. Anything that can be disrupted or automated, will be. From what I heard on the floor, there is not a good enough awareness of digital. You gotta make this thing really convenient.”

Jim Donald, who in March was named CEO of grocery retail giant Albertsons, recounted some of the changes that had taken place since his first tenure with Albertsons in the 1990s. “Charcuterie was beef jerky, grab ‘n go was a cup of donut holes and a meal kit was a hoagie and chips,” he said.

The most significant change? The fresh perimeter at Albertsons has grown sixteen-fold since 1991, Donald said, compared to seven-fold for all merchandise.

“The future of fresh is out there stronger than ever,” says Donald. “I see fresh moving into the center of the arena. The future of fresh is figuring out the last mile of e-commerce.”

By the year 2023, Donald predicts bots will be refilling supermarket shelves and unloading trucks, while the migration of more millennials into the workforce will bring educated and tech-savvy employees who strive to “one-up the competition.”

Store managers, he says, “will have to be at ease with a team of rivals — not a team of people who say, ‘yes, do this.’ They (millennials) want feedback to drive this business. Executives have to have the maturity of a boomer but the mindset of a millennial. Being able to understand all this data is going to move the supermarket industry forward.”

Respecting and listening to your “front line employees,” Donald said, is more important to the success of your business than consulting your fellow managers. “If you think your business is bigger than your front line, you will fail,” he said.  “Ask questions and listen — that is the best form of communication.”

Another speaker, Daymond John, founder of FUBU and a “shark” on the hit show “Shark Tank,” was pleased to tell attendees that his top find on the show was a food company — former NFL player Al “Bubba” Baker’s Bubba’s Q Boneless Ribs.

Like Donald, John said that a key to success is admitting that your co-workers often know more than you do, and to respect them for it. “I know when I walk into a room that I need to learn,” John told a Show and Sell audience. “I surround myself with people who are smarter than I am. My biggest skill set is that I go into a room with an open mind.”

If you’re truly innovating, speaker Jennifer Fleiss told attendees, you shouldn’t be worried about disruptors in your market. In fact, you should be disrupting yourself. Fleiss, the co-founder of Rent The Runway, an online designer dress and accessory rental service, said that nothing should be off limits when it comes to new ideas, even if the new ideas challenge things with which you’ve already found success.

Rent The Runway did just that when it rolled out a new service that offers more casual garments that can be rented four or five pieces at a time. “We disrupted ourselves,” she said.

Ginger Hardage, who recently retired as senior vice president of culture and communications at Southwest Airlines, detailed how Southwest burst on the scene with a major disruption:  a $26 flight from Dallas to Houston. When the competition matched it, they cut it in half. When the competition matched that, Southwest went back to $26 — but gave customers a free quart of liquor with every flight.

Southwest’s success, however, has been built not on gimmicks but on how well the company treats its customers and its employees, Hardage said. “All cultures start with hiring,” she said. “Hire tough so you can manage easy.” Seventy-one percent of Southwest employees, Hardage said, say that working at Southwest is “a calling,” not just a way to make a living. The company builds that kind of loyalty, she said, by encouraging employees to have fun and to improvise if they see a solution they think will work. “Don’t be too formulaic in the ways you allow employees to express themselves, do their jobs and connect with customers.”

How to find, train and retain the right employees was also one of the major themes of IDDBA president/CEO Mike Eardley’s annual presentation to attendees.

There is no issue more important to the industry, Eardley said, than getting new people to join it. He cited industry examples, including efforts by the top two US grocers, Walmart and Kroger, to fund their employees’ educations. Eardley also touted a new IDDBA education initiative, the Deli & Bakery Rising Stars Manager Certification and Entry-level Associate Certification programs.