Branded fresh products aren’t new, but they are to the Robinson Fresh division of global supply chain services provider C.H. Robinson. Founded in 1905, Eden Prairie, Minn.-based C.H. Robinson has long been a force in the fresh industry, but now it’s entering new territory with the launch of products under the Robinson Fresh brand. Leading the way is veteran fresh executive and Robinson Fresh President Michael Castagnetto. He spoke with Progressive Grocer about the brand launch, produce packaging and fresh supply-chain challenges.
Progressive Grocer: Why, after 115 years, did you decide that now is the right time to introduce products with your own brand name on them?
Michael Castagnetto: As we’ve evolved over the last five to seven years within the fresh supply chain and fresh produce specifically, we felt the timing was right. Robinson Fresh has been marketing fresh produce since 1905, but really, in the last few years, we felt the need to tell a much more consistent story and really provide our retail customers a specific and scalable brand.
PG: What effect did the arrival of the pandemic have on your launch plans?
MC: We started working on this probably in the middle to end of 2019. And as we built out the brand ideas and moved into 2020, it became very apparent, with the pandemic, that we were certainly correct in that the time was needed for us to be far more consistent in how we went to market, but also to provide our customers the opportunity to tell our story together with them. Delivering freshness since 1905 is a story that we believe resonates with consumers’ desire for healthier lifestyles, for access to healthy, fresh produce. And when you combine that with the large growth we’ve seen this year in e-commerce and online retail shopping, which requires a consistency in branding and consistency of product and packaging, the time really couldn’t have been better for us to make this launch.
PG: How does brand factor into produce shoppers’ online buying behavior?
MC: Shopping in produce for many people is an emotional and a spontaneous event, and the fresh department of stores is an important part of shoppers’ experience. But with the pandemic, we’ve seen huge growth in online shopping. And what we’ve heard from consumers is two things. One, 64% of consumers have tried online shopping for the first time. And many of those consumers have now told us that they plan to keep doing it in some form, even when things get back to whatever normal becomes. When you engage consumers online, you need to be able to show them products that will match what they receive. So that’s where we felt it was important that we have a singular brand to tell that story. Our new packaging has a large window because consumers want to see the product they’re buying, and it helps our customers market the product in a way that is manageable.
PG: How so?
MC: Some of our items are items that you might traditionally buy by the pound. Whether those are cucumbers or peppers or chilies, it’s impossible to do that online. You need to buy things by the each or, in our case, in a packaged form that the retailer can deliver. We feel really good that the packaging that our team has designed meets aesthetic and brand requirements, but will translate into good value for the consumer.
PG: You’re creating the Robinson Fresh brand from scratch in the mind of the consumer. What are the key differentiating attributes of the brand, and how you are telling that story?
MC: Our plan is to be very aggressive with digital marketing to create a consumer brand and be realistic about the role of brands in the fresh department. A lot of our focus is how do we connect our brand story to the retail customers that have known us for 115 years, who know us as a company that delivers fresh produce through complex supply-chain solutions, and who now will have products on the shelf that match that value proposition that we bring to those customers every day.
PG: How did you decide which items to include in the offering, what does that number look like currently, and where do you see it headed?
MC: We look for products that have a high reliance on complex supply chains. When you’re a division within one of the world’s largest global logistics companies, our advantage we bring to our customers is the ability to solve the global supply chains in such a volatile and dynamic category as fresh produce. We look for items that move around a lot, and we use the term “follow the sun,” which means products grown in multiple growing regions and global growing regions.
You’ll see us start in greens and what we call dry vegetables, so cucumbers, peppers, squash, chilies. Then we’ll move into larger fruit categories like tropicals, mangoes, limes, avocados, papayas. And then into our melon program as we get in closer to the summer, watermelons, mini watermelons, et cetera. Overall, we have a fairly wide group of categories that we engage in that does make us relatively unique in the fresh produce industry. There are a lot of great companies in our industry; many of them focus, though, on one or two categories. And we tend to be across the whole department, which is another reason why it was time for us to put our name and consolidate our business into a single brand, because we think it allows us to tell that story across the entire produce department, as opposed to just maybe a different story in each category.
PG: Will Robinson Fresh have some of its own exclusives like you would see maybe in other categories?
MC: We’re always looking for the next item or the next point of differentiation in the department. And we certainly work with our growers and suppliers to identify what those next varieties could be. But I think our focus is really making sure that the products we do supply are the very best quality, that we do it through a dynamic supply chain to give our customers multiple opportunities to adapt their supply chains to meet their needs.
PG: Pre-chopped and value-added produce products have been a growth area. How are you approaching those items in your branded offering?
MC: Historically, that is not a high area of focus for us, but it is an area of focus for us in terms of supply-chain management. Pre-pandemic, pre-chopped items were growing very fast, as consumers’ focus was convenience and everybody was so time-starved. When the pandemic hit, we saw those items take a pretty strong hit, as people were unsure of when they were going to get to the store next, but we are starting to see those categories come back.
PG: Are there specific supply-chain advantages associated with putting things in bags, perhaps at the store level in terms of replenishment?
MC: There are a couple strong benefits from having a bag line, especially in today’s environment. One, to your point, in a very space-constrained category, you can market an item pretty effectively and quickly in a relatively small amount of space, as opposed to having to build a large bulk display. Secondly, if you think about being able to then offer that item, both in store and online, the product can translate to both locations without the retailer having to carry two different SKUs of the same item.
From a supply-chain perspective, the bagging can be done at all points throughout the supply chain. So while we will bag most of these items at the growing point, we have the ability to supplement inventories through our own facilities or other third parties that we work with to pack up additional products, if necessary, because a retailer sees a surge or needs product at a different distribution center than what they had anticipated before.
PG: C.H. Robinson’s history closely parallels that of transportation in the United States. There are some interesting things happening now in transportation, especially if you look at what’s going on with autonomous vehicles and drones. What opportunities in the transportation of fruits and vegetables are you looking to seize today?
MC: Our focus is the development of flexible and dynamic supply chains so that we can surge and flex back where consumers and our customers need product. You saw this during the pandemic. Where we’re heading is the ability to have dynamic perishable supply chains that can meet consumers’ desires to have product where and when they need it. For much of our history, we focused on the best execution of the first mile of a supply chain, but for the next few years, the perishable industry will be working on the last mile. We believe we’re way ahead of the competition in terms of the ability to deliver multiple last-mile solutions, whether that’s to a consumer’s doorstep, to the back of a restaurant, to the back of a grocery store, or an online solution.