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CHICAGO-The grocery industry, ever a reflection of Jack and Jill Q. Public, is mirroring the country's cautious lifting of economic concerns.

After years of focusing on downsizing, streamlining andconsumer demand for lower prices, the Food Marketing Institute's annual convention, held here last week, had a new, lighter attitude.

The old issues remain vital, to be sure. The yearlong Efficient Consumer Response effort and the continued strength of private labels, in particular, were hot topics. But FMI moved beyond them as well.

The Food & Drug Administration's food labeling rules, new technologies, healthcare and international trade were among the top issues during meetings at FMI.

"Perhaps the biggest change in our industry is the improvement in feelings toward the future," FMI President Tim Hammonds, said in the show's major, multimedia presentation on the state of the supermarket business.

With the exception of stores in California and some parts of New England, "members all over the country now tell me they see signs of an upturn and that consumers are more open with their pocketbooks," he said.

Indeed, FMI's annual study of consumer attitudes found the importance of price has declined while taste and nutrition held their own. Forty-eight percent of shoppers cited social issues as their most important general concern, compared with 32% for economic matters-twice the 24% who cited social issues last year.

FDA Commissioner David Kessler made an impassioned presentation to the press at FMI about the new nutrition labels required on all food packaging, starting today.

Several marketers exhibiting at the show have used the new rules to improve product packaging overall. But there was still anxiety evident, particularly among smaller marketers, over how aggressively officials will enforce the new rules. Some argue it will take months beyond today's deadline to comply.

The rules seek to make consumers more aware of what's in the food they eat, and frozen Italian food marketer Celentano, Verona, N.J., sees that as a boon. The company has created new packaging using illustrations of its all-natural ingredients. A print campaign for the new packaging will break in the fall from DKM Marketing Consultants, Manhasset, N.Y.

Interactive home-based shopping programs were noted as examples of the growing role of technology in the industry. FMI research predicted that 15% of companies will offer home shopping by the end of the year, and indicated that 16% of shoppers would use home delivery at least once a month if it were available.

Among the more notable new technologies exhibited at the show was a shopper tracking system developed from defense technology by Codem Retail, Hollis, N.H.

The system, already installed in one Indianapolis-based unit of Marsh Supermarkets, uses an infrared transmitter attached to shopping carts and receivers installed in the ceiling to trace the path, purchase time and time spent in front of merchandise for each individual customer. Emily DeNitto coordinates Grocery Retailing News.

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