Mark Hendricks Sr.
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: In our area of the country, it is potatoes, onions, carrots, packaged and processed veggies. The rest is spread out between cooking vegetables, fruit and other packaged products in the produce department. Our customer base is cooking at home and eating out less, so naturally their shopping list has changed with the circumstances.
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: Packaging has been at the forefront for years now, and I can’t see that slowing down in the near future. As long as the product is prominently displayed and there are no hidden problems, the customer will buy with confidence — and probably at this point, seems to prefer packaged items to bulk.
Even in our bulk sections, because of the fear of contamination, we have gone to multiple-sized packages for grains, nuts, trail mixes, etc., weighed at random weights.
I think we will still sell and carry much of the same product, but the point of sale may change slightly due to food safety issues.
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 added multiple stores to assist our customers who prefer click-and-collect or home delivery. All departments are included in this service, and where we were mainly offering this in metro areas, we have now moved to smaller towns around our geography to accommodate those customers as well.
We are also leaning toward more packaged snack options with fruit and veggies with more of a grab-and-go mentality display-wise.
Q: What is most important to you at this time in working with your grower/shippers/wholesalers?
A: We need our suppliers to deliver orders in a timely manner — from picking, packing, shipping, slotting to store delivery, with consistency in timing and quality. And, of course, we need them to include food safety throughout all channels.
Q: What are the top challenges you see in the months ahead in terms of fully supplying your produce departments?
A: Weather has always been a challenge and will continue to be the Number 1 challenge, but labor will ultimately become a huge challenge because of the physical nature of the produce industry. As long as workers are brought in from different areas and work in close proximity with each other, the spread of whatever the next pandemic crisis is may become the biggest challenge in the industry during the seasonal harvests.
Also, as states adopt different methods of quarantine, the daily process of shipping commodities from area to area could prove to offer a different set of logistical problems. There should be caution taken in the “deals” that one is offered within the short term. Foodservice specs are not necessarily retail specs where retail commodities are concerned.
Retail buyers should ask the hard questions when it comes to sizes and grades in this new world.
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: The old-school method of pricing like we always have may suffer a setback in this new world. Depending on the commodity, there will undoubtedly be upward pressure applied on the cost of goods with labor, food safety, transportation and many other factors involved in setting market pricing going forward.
There needs to be a blend of all the elements to arrive at the new market value, and we need to shy away from .99/lb. because it has always been .99/lb.
At the same time, with a crunch in the workforce and less expendable income, fresh fruits and vegetables may give way in part to the cheaper processed offerings on the grocery side with canned and frozen options. We will just have to wait and see how the overall markets adapt to more costly commodities.
Q: When this crisis is over, will consumers continue to order more produce online?
A: If the change becomes a habit, then it will increase consumption of product ordered online. Many factors will affect the formation of that “habit” though. The expertise of the company offering the items will come in to play — to have the items correctly shown, described, priced and collected will be the determining factor in its success.
The customers will only trust the online medium as long as they see it to be a value, not only with time and safety, but with the quality and selection they receive.
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: Build your business on relationships that stand the test of time. If you have all your eggs in one basket and have not shown an ability to give as well as take, you could be left out to fend for yourself, which could affect your ability to react when a crisis arrives.
Your customers are building the same relationship with you, one purchase at a time, sometimes over a life time. Our ability to serve our customers, considering the current events, depends on the network of business associates we build as retailers with both our customers and how we deal in business with our partners.
Prioritize your opportunities, both good and bad, and keep an eye on the end goal of being of service to those in need.