When I think back on the changes I’ve seen in the retail produce business, it blows my mind that I’ve been in the business for 48 years! And if you’re around anything that long, you’re bound to see things evolve. As the saying goes, “the only constant is change”!
When I first started in the produce business at a local supermarket chain in Detroit, stores were open 9 a.m. – 9 p.m. Monday- Saturday and 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. on Sunday. The stores closed between 12 p.m. and 3 p.m. on Good Friday and were closed Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. There was no refrigeration on the fresh rack at all! We had to pull virtually the entire fresh rack at night in shopping carts (lined with cardboard of course!) and push them in the cooler in the back room. Then, the fresh rack was completely set up the next day! Each of the produce clerks had this rare piece of equipment called a “knife”, with which we trimmed all leafy greens. We would butt iceberg head lettuce and bag each individual head. We would cut halves and quarters of watermelon and cover the exposed area with wax paper. We would bag apples, oranges, and potatoes. (those 100-pound burlap bags were heavy!) We had scales on the sales floor where each customer had their produce weighed in the department and the paper sack was marked with a grease pencil. There were 117 different sizes of boxes that produce was shipped in, everything from bean hampers, to wire bound wooden crates, to the infamous “ba ** buster” cantaloupe crates. We could resell many of the boxes down at the Eastern Market! Peck tomato baskets (10 cents), wire bond crates (25 cents) and those cantaloupe crates (50 cents) all could help supplement a young guy’s income! I used to keep the back of my truck warm with a “smudge pot”, which was a wire milk crate (which I “borrowed” from a store), a galvanized bucket with holes in the side, and a charcoal fire! We would keep warm at the market in the winter by burning broken pallets (we called them “skids”) in 50-gallon empty oil drums. Truck were unloaded by hand using a 2-wheel cart and I remember seeing my first pallet jack and thinking” man, it doesn’t get better than this! “And when I made my first trip down to the Detroit Union Produce Terminal, I thought all of the produce in the world must ship through Detroit! I have never seen so much fresh fruit and vegetables. And I received an education in the business that could only be gained by all the salesman who took the time to take a young guy under their wings! And to make it even better, they had POWER pallet jacks! So, I’ve seen a thing or 2 in my time in the produce business!
I’ve worked for many significant retailers, Tom Thumb/Simon David and Meijer to name a few, but clearly the time I spent at Walmart gave me a perspective of change that I doubt I could have gained anywhere else. When I came to the company in 1991, they had 6 supercenters, 4 Hypermart USA’s and no distribution centers. When I left in 2007, they had almost 2400 Supercenters, 110 Neighborhood Markets, and 42 food DC’s. So obviously, one of the major shifts in retail that I both saw, and was a part of, was the institution of Supercenters as a major force in retailing. Walmart was not the first to be in the business as Fred Meyer and Meijer were pioneers in that format. But Walmart’s proliferation in the food business forever changed the retail landscape. And the mergers and acquisitions that took place, largely as a response to Walmart’s rapid growth, shifted the retail grocery business from a regional, privately held business to a national/ international publicly held business. This shift had a major impact on buyer/seller relationships. There was much more strategic planning, more emphasis on year over year sales increases, and the institution of vendor co-managed replenishment. Suppliers became much more integrated in “selling “to the end user, IE, the consumer. Supply chain logistics became a much more integrated element of the buyer/seller relationship. So, several industry shifts occurred in the ‘90s and early 2000’s.
Looking at the industry now, I see significant shifts in how the industry functions. Marketing has become more significant, particularly social media. “Socially responsible” issues are driving several consumer decisions. 20-30-40-year careers in the produce industry are becoming increasingly rare, as this mirrors what is happening in job careers in general. And, of course, the entire area of digital marketing has completely changed the way consumers buy products and where they go to get them. As I said at the outset, the only constant is change!
But of all the things I’ve seen in almost 50 years in this industry, the thing I am most grateful for is the people that I’ve had the honor and pleasure to work with, work for, collaborate with in trade associations, work with reporters and editors in the trade press, and complete against . In many cases, I interact with individuals that are the grandchildren of people that I did business with at one time. And of all the things I can remember and reflect on, nothing compares to the lifelong friendships I have made in this business. It’s truly a business like no other!
Growth of fresh produce and The Packer