Opinion: Look For Ways To Innovate Your Business

Brian Sparks

The annual U.S. Apple Association Crop Outlook and Marketing Conference typically features one or two presentations that go beyond the apple market to address big-picture trends and ideas that can shape the produce industry, and many others. This year’s meeting was no exception, with the inclusion of Robert Tucker, president of The Innovation Resource, and Reggie Griffin, the recently retired corporate vice president of produce and floral merchandising and procurement at The Kroger Company. Both Tucker and Griffin provided lessons and insights that can be used by growers large and small.

Innovate Your Business

Tucker’s presentation, to be expected given his company’s name, was titled “Driving Growth Through Innovation.” Here’s a quick review of some of his take-home messages, as well as examples of what we’ve seen in the fruit industry so far, and what you can do in response.
• Innovation can be accidental or intentional. Sometimes you might just stumble on a new idea that ends up being a perfect fit for your farm. More often than not, though, true innovators seek out something different, and they usually start by imagining an unfulfilled need. Take the apple slices sold at McDonald’s, for example. For the consumer, there was a need to find something that was nutritious for children, but also convenient for them to eat. For the apple industry, there was a need to target new consumers, in this case young children. Bingo! Just replace french fries with apples, and make it easy for parents to make that decision.
• You know what happens when you assume … or you should, at least. Tucker says the biggest stumbling block to developing a new, innovative idea is to assume that no one will accept it, or it can’t be done. The solution? “Assault your assumptions!” Don’t let them stand in your way. If you have a new product you want to sell, but aren’t sure if your buyers will accept it, then at least give it a shot.
• Fortify your idea factory. We all have new and interesting ideas that pop into our heads at random times throughout the day. Maybe it’s while you’re driving a tractor, or even taking a shower. The problem is, there are too many daily distractions that keep us from following up on these ideas. (I know this all too well personally, thanks to the multitude of emails I receive every day that constantly take me from one thought to another.) The trick, says Tucker, is to set aside time every day to focus on these new ideas, or to carry a notepad around with you (your phone may also have a “Notes” function). When an idea strikes you, record it so you won’t forget.
• Incorporate your whole company in the innovation process. The girl ringing up the next customer, or the guy driving the forklift through your packingshed, could very well be thinking of a way to do things better. How do you find out? Ask them. And, Tucker says, if you have a suggestion box somewhere in your office, use it! Its purpose should be more than just decoration.

At the end of his presentation, Tucker showed an image of the cover of American/Western Fruit Grower’s August issue, which featured Jeff Leonardini, the 2012 Apple Grower of the Year. Tucker cited Leonardini as an example of an innovator, someone who was looking for a better, and smarter, way to manage pests. You can also look at the September/October cover story on Ken and Barb Hall as an example. The five ingredients for success in farm marketing covered by the Halls are all tied to being innovative and looking for new ideas that can bring the most benefits to your business.

Avoid Confusion

Reggie Griffin’s talk was a bit more focused on the produce industry, as he addressed trends that will drive the future of retailing apples and all fruit. One of the main things Griffin emphasized is that the fruit industry needs to overcome confusion in the produce aisle. Admittedly, a lot of this confusion comes from things like the “Dirty Dozen” list, which makes consumers question whether apples are healthy for them or not. But it also comes from the seemingly never-ending industry debate over organic versus conventional fruit, and even club/managed varieties versus open market varieties. “Too many mixed messages can be disruptive to the consumer,” said Tucker. “The apple industry should always have a positive message, and if this happens, it goes a long way to regaining trust.”

Griffin also pointed out that during challenging economic times, it is usually better to reward loyal customers than to try bringing in new ones. Once again, Ken and Barb Hall are a great example of this. They have worked hard to develop a loyal base of customers who come back year after year, and a lot of it has to do with the personal connection the Halls have to them.

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