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    PG Retail Produce Roundtable: Focusing on the Future

    Industry leaders explore challenges, opportunities

    By Meg Major, EnsembleIQ

    With consumer interest in better dietary choices steadily on the rise, the fresh produce department is universally viewed as the single most influential destination for shoppers heeding the call to action.

    To that end, Progressive Grocer gathered a select group of invitation-only retail produce thought leaders at the Anabella Hotel, in Anaheim, Calif., last October to discuss the latest consumer trends and emerging solutions for an ever-changing landscape — one increasingly shaped by concerns about quality, convenience, taste and value.

    Meet PG’s Autumn 2014 Retail Produce Roundtable Panelists


    • Shirley Axe, Health & Wellness Manager, Ahold USA
    • Jeff Fairchild, Director of Produce, New Seasons Market
    • Mimmo Franzone, Produce Expert, Longo Brothers Fruit Markets
    • Justin Hill, Produce & Floral Director, Fresh & Easy
    • Jon Holder, Senior Manager, Produce and Floral, Raley’s Family of Fine Stores
    • Craig Ignatz, VP, Produce and Floral Merchandising, Giant Eagle
    • Mike Orf, Assistant VP, Produce Operations, Hy-Vee Inc.


    • Jim Grabowski, Director of Marketing, Well-Pict Berries
    • Brian Huh, VP of Category Development & Customer Strategy, Dole Fresh Vegetables
    • Doug Larson, EVP of Sales, Robbie Flexibles
    • Charlie Piper, President/CEO, HarvestMark & ShopWell


    • Meg Major, Chief Content Editor, Progressive Grocer

    Mike Orf, Assistant VP, 
    Produce Operations, 
    Hy-Vee Inc.

    If you really think about the produce department of today and the diversity of consumers that are shopping it — whether it’s Millennials and how they buy differently than Boomers — there’s so much we can offer. As retailers, the reality is that we’re kind of out here trying to dissect this on our own in terms of differentiation and trying to find new ways to put our own spin on things to help us stand out from the crowd. Produce is very cool that way, because it’s typically front and center in almost every store in America. But it wasn’t always that way. Now we’ve got an emergence of new, smaller-format stores that are almost all about produce. So I think we’re all trying to find our way with how to best leverage service and the value proposition with the kinds of products we strive to offer to help us stand apart. And there are just tremendous opportunities before all of us.

    I think what’s most important is that we’re carving out a unique niche that we believe in with all our hearts, that motivates us to get up every day excited about what we can do to go out and make it happen. There are just some really cool things happening in fresh produce right now that we can, and must, take full advantage of.

    Mimmo Franzone, 
    Produce Expert, 
    Longo Brothers Fruit Markets

    We’re really focusing on our people with training, education and hands-on learning with visits to our growers, to take our fresh produce departments to the next level. Our manager-training courses teach everything a successful manager really needs to know, such as margins, shrink and quality control. We also offer seasonal product knowledge seminars while investing in our produce teams by taking them out to see our growers, such as the six-day trip to California I organized last July for 44 team members, 28 of whom were produce managers.

    We covered 1,000 miles on the ground, with frequent stops to visit with, learn and really engage with our grower-partners. For some, it’s like a trip of a lifetime, and everyone comes back and shares their knowledge with their store teams, which is then passed on to our customers. So it’s really ongoing education, from seed to table. So whether it’s dietary tips or sustainability issues that our growers are working on, educating our team members is huge because that’s what customers want. The education works both ways for our vendors as well, to help them better know what we want and need.

    Justin Hill, Produce & Floral Director, Fresh & Easy

    There are a lot of areas of opportunity for us, but none more so than service. Historically, you could have walked into one of our stores, which were kind of like nice vending machines — plenty of products but no service. So we’re working across the company to deliver a new experience based on a very simple acronym, FAST — fresh, assortment, service and taste — to help take us to where we see eventually ourselves going, with stores focused on dayparts, with fresh offerings that change all day long.

    Specifically in produce, an area where we’ve changed our philosophy a bit focuses on flavor. So rather than trying to be first on items when they’re coming into season, we’re focusing more heavily on the best flavor. We’d rather be two weeks later bringing a product to our stores if it’s not eating great, because what we’ve seen from a customer experience is that when they come in and they buy, say, that first peach, if it doesn’t taste great, then we risk losing them for the season.

    Flavor really matters today and is something that moves rapidly across social media channels. Previously, we could only tell people about products in ads and, with luck, by word of mouth. But now, anyone with a smartphone is suddenly able to share information — all the way across the country, or even around the world, in a matter of minutes, about where they are finding great-tasting products.

    Jim Grabowski, Director of Marketing,
    Well-Pict Berries

    The focus on health — and our industry’s collective role to accelerate it — is an extremely important issue for everybody in fresh produce. For our part, however, ensuring that the cold-chain management system never breaks is crucial. Unfortunately, however, that’s not always the case, and we know it happens, and often times, it’s at store level.

    As an example, we were having problems with one customer, which was complaining about their berries. So I spent some time at their warehouse to understand their receiving, unloading and inspection practices, and everything was as it should be. We then went to look at some of the stores, which appeared to be fine there as well. But after returning to the retailer’s backroom after a lunch break at 1:30 p.m., in the thick of humid, 85-degree midsummer heat, I immediately noticed the wide-open back door adjacent to the delivery area, where the pallet was stored. On top of the berries sat a 50-pound bag of onions. And I said but three words: “That’s our problem.”

    If we could commit to educating store-level teams about the importance of getting temperature-sensitive, high-demand items like berries into the cooler right away, we would all have a lot less to worry about.

    By Meg Major, EnsembleIQ
    • About Meg Major Veteran supermarket industry journalist Meg Major brings a wealth of experience to her role as Chief Content Editor of Progressive Grocer. In addition to her editorial duties, Major also spearheads the retail food industry’s premier women’s leadership recognition platform, Top Women in Grocery. Follow her on Twitter at @Meg_Major, connect with her on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/megmajor, or email her at mmajor@ensembleIQ.com.

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