( Photo courtesy Craig Carlson )

People often ask me what business practices I would reintroduce to the modern produce industry. Put simply, I would bring back the “art of the deal.” 

In the world of automated systems buyers are losing the art and science of buying and this needs to be brought back, as it is something automated systems cannot understand.

In order to better understand this, we must first understand retailer-buying practices today with those of the past. In the past, produce buyers’ main method of communication was the phone, leading them to connect with the sellers directly to discuss market challenges and opportunities. With this model, buyers utilized their volume to capitalize on market conditions. The buyers had the real-time ability and flexibility to promote inventory and the sellers had the ability to move market excesses accordingly. 

A real life example occurred when I was leading the produce program at Pathmark. The berry buyer received a phone call, asking him what it would take to move five loads of Driscoll’s strawberries that were on their way to New York City. 

The buyer knew that he had to make the decision immediately or he risked losing the deal, since the next call would likely go to a competitor. The buyer made the decision on the spot, agreeing to a deal where he could promote Driscoll’s strawberries at $0.99/1-pound package, generating incremental sales and gaining the category gross margin dollars.

In today’s world, many retailers have lost the art of how to sell market breaks because they focus on the future and not the present. 

The next phone call was to our CEO who immediately understood the significance of this deal. He sent a voicemail to all store managers, asking them to display this promotion in the entranceway for the coming weekend. 

This promotion was ultimately extremely successful and became an integral example of the benefits of real-time decision making, and fueling a selling culture within the organization. 

Following, the store managers would often call looking for deals to promote both in-store and via printed ads. This culture supported the buyer’s ability to capture the best deals in the marketplace.

Flashing forward to today’s produce platform buying process, we enter a world of automation for buyers. The buying process is deeply automated and buyers generally are not available to talk on the phone. The electronic pricing requests are booked for weeks and sometimes even months in advance; therefore, the flexibility to promote these products in real-time is arguably lost. In today’s world, many retailers have lost the art of how to sell market breaks because they focus on the future and not the present. 

This combination of the art and science of buying is what will make modern produce businesses stronger and more agile in the long run. Responsive decisions generated by seasoned buyers in real-time are necessary in order to deliver the most relevant product to the consumer.

Ultimately, there is a big opportunity for retailers to leverage old and new school selling strategies to maximize their efficiency. This is realistically an area where independent retailers are excelling, as they are the ones utilizing real-time promotional strategies to win.

Craig Carlson is the president and CEO of Carlson Produce Consulting LLC.

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