The economic crisis is changing customer and consumer habits while making growers and suppliers look for new efficiencies. Many in the New Jersey produce industry say simply finding internal savings isn’t enough — they must also create value for their customers in order to retain them.

“You have to realize that when your customer base has less money to spend, we have to try to facilitate them,” said Bill Nardelli, president of Nardelli Bros. Inc., Cedarville, N.J. “We’ve got a little break on fuel and fertilizer and (wax-coated) boxes, so we’re trying to pass that on to our customer base.”

Nardelli said Nardelli Bros. is also taking advantage of its close-to-market customer base to reduce freight costs.

“We are trying to operate as close to the chest and as economically as we can,” he said.

“The items that we have are reasonably priced for the consumer. That’s something that we are really trying to achieve this year.”

Pete Macrie, president of Paul J. Macrie Inc., Hammonton, N.J., said customers simply do not have the “gotta have it” attitude they had in the past.

“When something gets to a point for the chain stores, the retail is so high that they won’t need it. You find out there won’t be a demand for it,” he said.

“They saw it out of Chile with these blueberries in the winter. They started them off too strong and people didn’t want to pay big money. A lot of these items that aren’t your staple items, people aren’t excited about. They’re going to be smarter shoppers.”

Jim Donio, treasurer of Frank Donio Inc., Hammonton, said customers are looking for stability and close partnerships that stress security during uncertain times.

“We feel that in uncertain economic times, consumers and retailer customers want a level of stability, security and safety,” said Donio, who described how Frank Donio Inc. tours customers through its facilities and farms and considers customers to be partners.

“That partnership creates a great sense of security and comfort so that they know they can count on us in very difficult times,” he said.

Peter Bylone, general manager for the Vineland Cooperative Produce Auction Association Inc., Vineland, N.J., said he is saving money by working with growers who are mostly 10-15 minutes away.

“The furthest farmers are in the Salem area, Swedesboro, 45 minutes away,” he said, adding that suppliers like him are looking for bigger deliveries from growers in order to cut back on a high number of low volume farm trips.

Sam Burleson, vice president of sales and marketing for F&S Produce Co., Rosenhayn, N.J., stressed not that he is saving his customers money, but that he is helping to make them money.

“We have some new customers that are new to the New Jersey area. They are not retail but industrial customers,” he said.

Sam Pipitone, president of F&S Produce Co., agreed there is a lot of room for profit for those willing to take the risk, especially at a time when many growers and suppliers are acting conservatively.

“We expect the window to be quite significant,” Pipitone said of the New Jersey spinach deal that he is re-entering after a lapse of several years. “We found an opportunity for us to have raw material again, sourced nearby and able to market.”

Pipitone said the spinach crop has an early start this year from about mid-April to June, a break in the middle of the summer, and then will pick up again in the fall.

He is working with a private label and he said the company seized this opportunity because of the guarantee of support and encouragement from its partner, providing “a nice extension to our product line.”

Chris Cunnane, national sales director for Santa Sweets, Procacci Bros. Sales Corp., Philadelphia, said despite the downturn and across-the-board search for savings and efficiency, the demand for flavorful tomatoes has not subsided.

“There are people that are connoisseurs of tomatoes and they know flavor for this Ugly Ripe in particular. It almost has a romantic connection for a lot of people,” Cunnane said of Procacci Bros.’ “old fashioned” tomato seed variety based on calls, letters and e-mails.

Cunnane said the variety is not typically grown commercially because of its low yields, but he supplies the tomatoes to select stores where a loyal following will pay for the premium produce.

“There’s definitely a percentage of the population that loves tomatoes,” he said. “If they love it and perceive it as something that is worth the money, they’ll buy it.”