Josh (Josue) J. Padilla
Director of Produce
Bronx, New York
Q: What items are currently selling and which are not selling as much – and why? What is driving sales of these items? How do you anticipate this will change in the next few weeks and what are you doing and planning as a result?
A: Many base ingredients, such as herbs, mushrooms, family-size packages, packaged vegetables and salads are selling well, as people’s dining options are limited.
Many pre-packaged items are selling better, since people are more secure in our food safety and coronavirus protocols. A lot of our grab-and-go items for snacking, such as parfaits, single serve juices, and small packages, have decreased in sales, since people have stopped going to work, gyms, parks, etc.
We expect that as people get back to work, school and their daily routines, these snacking items will begin to increase. We expect strong produce sales to continue as people’s fears of being around so many others limit their exposure to dining out.
Q Since we are soon entering the bulk of the domestic season for fresh produce in North America, what challenges and opportunities does this provide? What advice are you giving to growers who are harvesting now and are planning to harvest soon?
A: With much of the foodservice buying off the radar, we have been able to get better quality, availability and pricing to move product. This has also been a good time to do category reviews. At this juncture, items that are not selling will probably never sell during the pandemic and shut-down, and it may a good time to be discontinued and replaced with newer or fast-selling items.
I also believe that this is a good time to add some new items. I definitely would recommend growers to increase the acreage to faster-selling items. This is a good time for growers and retail chains to support their local programs to specific stores by going DSD, rather than farm to warehouse.
Q: With a downturn in foodservice demand currently, how have you as a retailer been able to respond to supply your customers? For example, are you selling more produce via online?
A: We have been more in stock with cooking items. We have increased our assortment. As a high end retailer, we still have been able to either consistently sell or increase sales of more niche items to our regular customers as they assume the cooking responsibilities from restaurants.
In addition, our delivery service has increased because of social-distancing measures and customer concerns of contracting COVID-19.
Q: What is most important to you at this time in working with your grower/shippers/wholesalers?
A: Communication on quality and availability are most important. With different grades of produce available on the buying market, we made a concerted effort to procure the best quality available. We have also been in communication with our suppliers on what their COVID-19 plans have been.
Q: What are the top challenges you see in the months ahead in terms of fully supplying your produce departments?
A: Labor will be a challenge at the both growing, shipping and warehouse end. Being in New York City, the epicenter of the coronavirus, we have seen a high level of people calling in sick and some staff not able to work, which may affect our merchandising and production teams.
In addition, the availability of drivers, who want to come into NYC, has been difficult causing missed trucks and a lot of out-of-stocks. Our partner/growers have been affected with reduced labor availability.
Q: In the possible economic downturn we might see, how do you see this affecting produce sales overall and the ability to price and promote in the future?
A: Catering to high-end consumer, we are not susceptible to pricing and promoting. We may have to further venture into better grades, larger sizing and newer and niche items to differentiate ourselves from the low cost providers.
Q: When this crisis is over, will consumers continue to order more produce online?
A: I truly believe that the social distancing effects of the COVID-19 will continue, causing lower customer counts in stores and higher online produce sales.
Q: Working through what you are now, what advice would you give to a produce executive in your shoes in the future about what to do?
A: Steady the ship. Keep 100% fulfillment of core produce items. Now is the time for analysis and category reviews. Eliminate redundant items.