As to remind me that winter really isn’t over in Chicago, we had a dusting of snow (less than an inch) yesterday. The snow cover, albeit pretty, was a far cry from sunshine, palm trees and summer wear at last week’s venue, the Fontainebleau Resort in Miami Beach, the host hotel for the National Confectioners Association (NCA) State of the Industry Conference.

The conference’s opening reception was held on an outdoor patio facing the ocean, and- you guessed it - there was that moon shining as beautifully and warmly as any Northerner could want.

Naturally, such a debut seemed to be a good omen for the presentations to follow, and as it turned out, the lineup of speakers (for the most part) lived up to those moonlit expectations.

First, I recommend readers go to NCA’s Web site and zero on J. Walker Smith’s overview on consumer trends, which delivers some excellent insights on the resilient consumer in the United States.

Despite the common perception that consumer spending shriveled during the most recent Great Recession, Smith, who’s executive chairman of The Futures Co., pointed out that consumer spending actually increased during the past year, and was higher than the pre-recessionary period in 2008.

What has happened, as a result of the downturn has forced consumers to prioritize what’s important in life. As Smith put it, “Consumers are looking for meaning over money.” Another interesting tidbit that he revealed involved trust. According to Smith, trust has been on the decline since 1965. Back then, people still had confidence in local as well as the federal government, educational institutions, banks, the stock market… the list goes on.

Today, trust is held close, Smith says. It’s an inner circle. Thus, word-of-mouth, and now, word by e-mail, text, Twitter from trusted friends and colleagues hold way. Hmmm. Sounds like an opportunity here for confectionery companies, large and small to deliver a message about their companies and brands. And why would consumers trust candy companies. Well, they already do. According to Smith, the confectionery industry was only one of six industries out of 300 that showed growth during the recessionary period.

Moreover, whenever you’re hunkering down, it’s good to know a candy bar, jelly bean, chewing gum, hard candy, chocolate bar, chewy candy, panned nut and/or chocolate praline delivers the taste and comfort you’re looking for.

I also advise you to take a look at Scott Hartman’s presentation. Hartman, president and ceo of Rutter’s Farm Stores, a convenience store chain in Pennsylvania, provided a wonderful example of how smaller operators (about 60 C-stores) don’t let their size prevent them from being forward thinking and progressive.

Hartman’s entertaining “I’m just a retailer” approach wowed me with his commitment to greener stores, smart phone technology, C-store design and consumer savvy. What makes me even more impressed with Hartman is that he understands the value of merchandising and selling candy. As he points out, it’s the fifth largest category in his stores and delivers a 47% margin. So candy guys and gals, if you want to see C-store retailing on the cutting edge, stop by a Rutter’s C-store.

Finally, a couple of closing thoughts on two dynamic speakers: representing the spirit of entrepreneurism: Steve Forbes, president and ceo of Forbes, Inc. as well as editor-in-chief of Forbes magazine, and Tony Hsieh, ceo and founder of A few quick observations- I thought Forbes was running for office again, his luncheon speech delivering what people want to hear. Did I say he mentioned “pandering” several times?

As for Hsieh, I really hadn’t intended on getting up early in the morning to hear his talk on Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profit, Passion and Purpose. Come on, do I need a motivational speaker at 8 a.m. in the morning, in Miami Beach. But I stumbled in and caught most of his presentation. Definitely new wave entrepreneur (Hsieh) versus old-school (Forbes). 

One last note, Hsieh left copies of his book for everyone- for free. Forbes had a book-selling session (OK, he autographed them) for $25. Guess who impressed me the most. Perhaps it was the full moon effect!