TALKING KETCHUP bottles and walking Twinkies mingled among the conventioneers when the Food Marketing Institute annual convention took over Chicago's McCormick Place for three days last week. It was the usual fast food orgy of frozen pizza and prepared pastry. But there were also seminars to help retailers with such things as wine merchandising and customer relations.

And for some visitors, the three-day event even posed some heavy philosophical questions. Take the lobster, for instance. A 20-pounder--claws like slick red vices held tight by rubber bands. A few of this year's conventioneers wondered what life is all about when one could spend 150 years growing up in the cold Maine coastal waters only to wind up in a holding tank for 18,000 food marketers to gawk at.

Those less metaphysically inclined might worry more about energy costs, "shrinkage" (losses), theft and a whole host of other concerns that, if the convention was any indication, plague food marketers the world over.

The miles of color-coded aisles at Chicago's looming McCormick Place held technological wonders that may help solve a few of the supermarket retailers economic problems. Bernard Freedman of Chevy Chase Super Market in Maryland was in town to explore the latest in meat-weighing and wrapping technology. For Freedman, solving his problem might mean buying a $25,000 computer. That sounds a little expensive, but such a machine potentially reduces his labor needs. Currently, Freedman employs 13 full-time and 5 part-time workers in his meat department alone. Labor dollars, said Freedman, add up fast in the grocery store business. It doesn't take long for a machine like that to pay for itself.

Freedman's concerns don't differ much from those of the 18,000 other visitors at the convention, where seminars and displays were designed to address three major areas of concern: appealing to consumer needs, operating efficiently and product merchandising. Salesmen employed everyone from leotard-clad women (dressed as "foxes") to magicians to catch the eye of the wandering retailer in hopes of selling industrial-size refrigerators, automatic grocery store doors and processed food of all varieties.

The Consumers Cope

FMI vice president Timothy Hammonds said consumer concerns about money and nutrition influence much of what will happen in supermarkets in the near future. A recent FMI/Lou Harris poll indicated that consumers believe they can cope with higher grocery store prices by planning more meals before they shop to avoid impulse buying, using more cents-off coupons, buying fewer convenience and snack foods and eating out less. On the other hand, he said, shoppers they think they've gone as far as they can with stocking up on bargains.

Hammonds said that consumers have begun to act on those beliefs. Restaurant sales are down as restaurant prices continue to rise much faster than the cost of home-prepared meals. Consumers choose to buy fewer mediocre frozen and prepared foods. If the food is high quality, Hammonds said, they'll pay for it, but they are less likely to pay for convenience items they can prepare better at home.

Consumer concerns about health and nutrition explain growing sales of fresh everything from produce to pasta. Consumers are beginning to look for good quality, fresh fish in their supermarkets, so retailers attended one seminar to learn how to sell fresh fish. Fish display counters (like deli counters or meat counters) set up on the convention floor were a hot topic throughout the three-day meeting.

Industrial-size pasta machines produced a rainbow of multi-shaped noodles all over McCormick Place. Pasta extruders squeezed out green fettucini and pink macaroni while huge kneaders rolled out long sheets of dough to be sliced into chosen widths and lengths. Aladino Renzetti, who has sold fresh pasta from his two Columbus, Ohio, supermarkets for 30 years, stood with three family members to listen to the salesman's pitch. His wife and another worker roll out 500 pounds of pasta each week, and while she wasn't "too sold" on the extruder, a machine that rolls the dough would save her a lot of wear and tear, she said.

"Natural food" salesmen were out in full force to take advantage of the fad turned passion for health foods. Many displayed their wares in bulky buckets set up in earthy wood frames; others displayed their carob-coated candies next to their thin mints and salt water taffy. "All natural" ingredients was the convention buzz phrase.

Robot Revolution

Supermarket retailers like Chevy Chase's Freedman, who typically operate on a one percent profit margain, have learned to depend on storewide efficiency to save them money as much as grocery sales to make them money.

Efficiency could translate into a "wrapping robot" (about $6,800) that automatically wraps plastic around pallets stacked with boxes so that the entire stack can be moved from a truck as a unit instead of individually. The robot handles the task in about 20 seconds versus the 20 minutes it takes to envelop the stack manually with steel straps.

Different manufacturers offered varied solutions for recirculating air from open display freezers and for using hot and cold air from refrigeration units to control the temperature in supermarkets. Innovations such as these can make quite a dent in Freedman's $10,000 monthly utility bill.

Retailers may begin to cut down on theft by magnetizing at least their most expensive products, such as canned hams, which would trigger an alarm if someone should try to leave the store without having the magnetized strip neutralized. This cuts down not only on shoplifting, but on employee theft, too.

Even competition among grocery cart companies was tough. Some carts displayed were made of Copco-colored plastic; others were traditional metal ones and low-slung square versions. One was displayed--a la Las Vegas--atop a rotating pedestal complete with flashing colored lights.

Selling Strategies

Merchandising means bringing together the best of all factors that get somebody to buy a product: price, display, availability and so on. Fresh fish displays probably caused as much talk as any of the innovations, but there were others. One company makes kitschy road signs that point shoppers in the direction of: Facial Tissues. Many were just variations on a theme--produce and deli stands.

Some of the best merchandising techniques were illustrated by the show itself. Hula girls danced to Hawaiian music to draw people to samples of pineapple and papaya. A woman dressed in white chiffon attracted the attention of businessmen interested in refrigerator components. And the greatest coup of all--beer tappers were strategically located near Mexican food, pizza and barbecue samples.

Salesmen said business was good on all fronts. If the economy has hurt the supermarket industry, nobody wanted to talk about it. Retailers said they brought away useful strategies from the educational seminars and returned to their stores with a good idea of what they might purchase in the future.