Anguilla supermarkets and the future of conferences

This is the third of my blog posts written while vacationing in Anguilla.

Supermarket shelvesAnguilla is a country of 14,000 people and four supermarkets. I like Anguillan supermarkets. None of them are chains and each has its own character, which makes shopping interesting, rather than the typically predictable American experience.

Nearly everything is imported. When we first started vacationing here, food arrived by ship once a week, usually making Thursday night peak shopping time. As the days passed, popular items like milk and vegetables vanished, only to reappear shortly after the container ships steamed into the harbor at Sandy Ground. Nowadays the shelves are stocked more regularly, but you still never quite know what you may find when you venture inside one of these idiosyncratic stores.

Each store has different strengths and weaknesses. One boasts an extensive liquor department, but seems to have something against vegetables. Another is clearly aimed at retired colonialists, with a fine display of British brand name staples and household knickknacks, while everyday staples are shortchanged. And a third provides the best assortment of local foods, but little in the way of candy for the kids.

What’s interesting is the evolution of these establishments over time. The older supermarkets used to have a monopoly on certain goods; if you wanted cream you had to go to Supermarket A, while Supermarket B was the sole supplier of Pampers. With more sources of supply, the possibilities have multiplied—and the stores have responded in very different ways.

Six years ago, Supermarket C was the most haphazardly stocked of the three we patronized. Its marketing philosophy seemed to be we’ll take anything we can get out hands on, stack it in an aisle, and see if it sells. Their stock gyrated so widely from visit to visit that we avoided shopping there unless we felt like being truly surprised. Not surprisingly, it was rare to see more than a few cars in the parking lot. Meanwhile Supermarkets A & B relied on their exclusive arrangements to offer, between them, a fairly comprehensive, if somewhat unreliable, selection of useful food and household products.

Fast forward to today. Supermarket C has been transformed. The premises are the same, but the shelves are now stocked with a comprehensive range of useful goods. And in addition, unlike competitors A & B, the store is open every day until late. As a result, it’s hard to find a space in the parking lot.

Meanwhile, Supermarkets A & B have rested on their laurels. We don’t have to shop in both places to get what we want any more. C is now our go-to store. And yet, though their traffic is down, we still notice customers shopping at A & B.

These days, those of us who don’t live on a small island know that failure to keep up with competitors in a commodity-driven retail market invariably leads to swift economic extinction. In Anguilla’s laid back environment, such change will probably occur more slowly, but eventually, unless they make significant changes, Supermarkets A & B will not survive.

You’ve probably guessed how this relates to the future of conferences. Think of Supermarkets A & B as set-in-their-ways organizers of traditional conferences. Think of C as progressive event planners who realize that people prefer to attend events that give them what they want rather than going to multiple events to get a piece here and a piece there.

In Anguilla, people’s needs for supermarket goods didn’t change, but improvements in the supply of imported goods into Anguilla allowed Supermarket C to change what it offered to better match what people wanted. Likewise, people’s professional needs for relevant content, meaningful engagement and networking haven’t changed. But we now have a host of new ways to supply content outside the traditional conference, and a host of new ways to find out what conference attendees actually want to do while they’re together. Ignore them at your peril. See you in the aisles at Supermarket C!

Image attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ame/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0