(April 10, 12:35 p.m.) LA MIRADA, Calif. — Southern California retail produce professionals with 122 combined years of experience addressed issues ranging from the economy to the effect Tesco’s new Fresh & Easy chain is having on the industry during the April 9 meeting of the Fresh Produce & Floral Council.

A retail panel fielded a barrage of questions from suppliers, providing a glimpse into the inner workings of major supermarket produce-buying operations.

None of the three panel members seemed intimidated by the widely heralded arrival last fall of the Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market chain from U.K.-based Tesco.

Rob McDougall, senior director of produce and floral for Gelson’s Markets, Encino, said he was concerned at first that the new chain’s emphasis on convenience items might cut into Gelson’s business, but that worry proved unfounded.

Fresh & Easy’s effect “was not even measurable,” he said.

Roger Schroeder, vice president of produce and floral for Stater Bros. Markets, San Bernardino, Calif., agreed. The opening of new stores usually has some effect on sales at nearby Stater Bros. locations, but the effect of Fresh & Easy was “nothing measurable,” he said.

K.V. Mart Co., Carson, saw some ripple in sales, “but nothing drastic,” said produce buyer Mike Yuro.

KEEP IN TOUCH

Panel members said they are receptive to hearing from suppliers, especially in relation to something new, unique or better than what’s already out there, Schroeder said.

Yuro said he believes in maintaining regular contact with suppliers, and he’s open to cold calls when he’s not pressed for time.

“I never refuse to talk to anybody,” he said, but he added that he usually does business with people he has worked with and who know his company’s needs.

McDougall said he prefers to be contacted by e-mail, and Schroeder said the best way to introduce a new item to Stater Bros. is to send a sample and follow up with a phone call.

THE ECONOMY

The three also talked about the state of the economy.

“I’d say we are in a recession,” Yuro said.

The adage that the grocery business is recession-proof is not necessarily true.

“We’re feeling it,” he said.

Although sales numbers are steady because of higher prices, package volume is down, he said.

Schroeder seemed a bit more positive.

“There is a slowdown,” he said, but typically in a recession, the grocery business is not affected as much as restaurants or other food establishments, and sometimes it may even help business.

It does, however, change the mix in the store if, for example, customers switch to bananas, rather than buy $3 fruit, he said.

Even at Gelson’s, an upscale chain, customers are talking about prices more than in the past, McDougall said.

“Even people with a lot of money are looking at things a little differently than they did a year or two ago,” he said.

One thing all three retailers agreed on was the importance of food safety.

“You’re going to have to have some kind of safety program in place,” Schroeder said. “That will be one of our first questions (for vendors).”

“We’re very, very conscious of food safety,” Yuro agreed.

Gelson’s has a food safety team that visits key suppliers, McDougall said.

“Nothing is more important right now than keeping (up) that level of safety with our customers,” he said.