Director of Produce & Floral
Tops Markets LLC
Williamsville, New York
Q: What items are currently selling and which are not selling as much – and why? What is driving sales of these items?
A: Potatoes, carrots and onions have been the real winners out of the gate. These items are hardy items that can be bought in large quantities and stored. Couple that with their versatility, value, and consumer familiarity in terms of preparation, and that explains a lot.
Apples, particularly bagged options, are doing extremely well. Families are at home, and there isn’t a much healthier and easier snack than an apple. Plus it has been known to ‘keep the doctor away’.
Citrus and kiwifruit have seen strong growth. I believe consumers know that Vitamin C is a key vitamin for immune systems, so these are easy items to consume as a health boost.
Fresh-cut fruit cups and fruit & vegetable trays seem to be the only items that have been soft. Since many people aren’t going to work, they aren’t grabbing fruit cups for breakfast or lunch. The same dynamic is playing out in our carry-out cafes. Fruit and vegetable trays are a victim of the lack of big gatherings.
Q: How do you anticipate this will change in the next few weeks and what are you doing and planning as a result?
A: I think the panic-buying, for lack of a better term, is over. I think we will continue to see strong sale growth, but the fresher-type items like berries and salads will grow even more, with the hard line items slowing down a bit.
It is happening already. Don’t get me wrong… double-digit growth for the hardline-type produce items is expected to continue due to consumers eating at home more often, but the other perishable items should catch up as we move through the end of the crisis.
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?
A: Crisis or no crisis, as we move into mid-spring, and the summer holidays come into play, the sales opportunity is huge for fresh produce. Consumers have been at home, and hopefully have gained some confidence in preparing food at home. There should be plenty to choose from.
The challenge will be in harvesting, packing, shipping, etc. We need people to make that happen, and the current situation is creating uncertainty.
Q: What advice are you giving to growers who are harvesting now and are planning to harvest soon?
A: Back to the basics. Focus your efforts on the staples so you can maximize efficiency.
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 are selling more produce, and just about everything in the grocery store, on-line. Consumers are making the decision to stay home and order on-line. It makes sense especially in this current environment we are in.
We worked with foodservice suppliers to divert the supply from that channel to our channel as there was some short term tightness in the supply chain. Product was out there, just not in the right place.
Q: What is most important to you at this time in working with your grower/shippers/wholesalers?
A: My highest hope is that everyone is staying safe. We are in this together and we will come out on the other side stronger than we went in. It is also important that our suppliers know just how great of a job they did during this crisis.
The industry rebounded quickly, and they all played a huge part and should be very proud.
Q: What are the top challenges you see in the months ahead in terms of fully supplying your produce departments?
A: We must have the ability for the supply chain to rebound and get all products back on line. We need labor to do that.
When the restaurants and foodservice come back on line, can the supply chain meet that challenge? Demand will most certainly exceed supply for at least a couple of weeks. Trying to keep all the channels supplied will be a challenge.
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: I think produce sales could decrease slightly. Fresh produce, while not expensive, is at times more expensive than other alternatives, including frozen and canned. If consumers are pinching pennies, the reality is there is a less expensive option in some cases.
Our ability to price and promote will be affected, and we will need to find creative solutions to offer value to the consumers who are in that situation.
Q: When this crisis is over, will consumers continue to order more produce online?
A: I definitely think that will be the case. Many first-time users are utilizing that channel and, as their confidence builds, it only makes sense that they will either continue to use it or at least use it occasionally.
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: Understand that consumer expectations change during a crisis, so don’t be too hard on yourself, or the supply chain, when you aren’t able to react instantaneously to sharp sales increases. No one can be prepared for the influx in business that was experienced, so do the best you can.
Consumers are well aware that the supply chain has their best interests in mind and, in most instances, are very grateful for the important work you do.