Connecting With The Supply Chain

It is becoming more imperative than ever for fruit growers to know what’s happening up and down the supply chain. Even if you have direct contact with your customers on a daily basis, there is certainly valuable insight to be gained in keeping up with the latest trends in packaging, marketing, and foodservice.

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One of the presentations made during the Produce Marketing Association’s (PMA) Fresh Summit International Convention in Orlando, FL, in October provided such an opportunity. This panel discussion, titled “How Produce Managers Connect With The Supply Chain,” featured four panelists who shared their thoughts on the three-way relationship between retailers, suppliers, and consumers, on issues such as the economy, food safety, the locally grown movement, product innovation, and more.

There were lessons to be learned throughout the discussion, including some of these important highlights:

• During a challenging economic climate, there does not seem to be any right answer as to how to price your products, and position them. One panelist was committed to highlighting the lowest-priced items in the department, in order to market the business as a low-cost provider. Another noted that he will change the order of the produce department quarterly, so that customers will be encouraged to stop and look around.

• All of the panelists highlighted their commitment to food safety and sanitation. Keeping up with product recall alerts, and training their staff in proper sanitation, were of vital importance (those of you who rely on in-store product sampling should note that many of these produce managers are moving in the opposite direction). It was interesting, as well, to learn that few consumers seem to be asking questions about food safety. In fact, one of the panelists said the questions they do receive from consumers are not related to food safety, but rather where their food is coming from. This leads directly into the next highlight …

• The “locally grown” movement has emerged to the point where, as each panelist agreed, consumers will often equate local to safe, and thus are sometimes willing to pay more for a product produced locally. However, “local” is still considered an ambiguous term, and might have different meanings to different shoppers. In order to avoid misconceptions, one panelist said he will tell his customers specifically how many miles away the product came from. The buyer can then decide for themselves whether this fits their definition of “local.” It may also be advantageous because it provides an exact definition of “food miles,” something more and more consumers are taking to heart.

• The rise in the number of farmers markets is garnering a lot more attention, and in some cases is having a negative effect on sales. However, one panelist argued that retailers should be more than willing to embrace this trend as an opportunity. He suggested if you are a retailer, or a grower who supplies direct to retail, you should meet directly with local farmers market vendors and seek out ways to develop partnerships with them.

• Innovation is always a major focus, whether it’s in packaging, promotion, or pricing. For example, one panelist saw a jump in sales when his department started placing apples in clear tote bags, rather than paper bags, so that the customer could see the fruit inside.

Learning Opportunities

The common theme in all this is that produce managers have perhaps more direct contact with consumers than any other part of the supply chain, so it’s important to get to know them and develop strong relationships with them.

If you are not involved in organizations such as PMA or the United Fresh Produce Association, you should make it a priority. Attend one of their meetings, and you’ll gain instant access to a vast array of knowledge and experience. Hopefully you’ll also broaden your horizons along the way.