( Photo courtesy Bruce Peterson )

When discussing the evolution in today’s produce buyer, it’s important to consider how retail has changed. 

Consider Walmart: it began as a general merchandise company. Now it is an omnichannel international retailer that offers food/GM/consumables/services across digital and physical formats, interfacing with the consumer in whatever way the consumer chooses at a specific time.

Now ask this question: Did a buyer at Walmart in 1980 have the necessary skill sets needed to function in Walmart in 2018? Of course not! The Walmart of 2018 is a totally different company than the Walmart of 1980.
But the same thing could be said, to various degrees, of Kroger, Albertsons, Safeway, Ahold, or virtually any other food retailer. The truth is that if a retailer is not a different company in 2018, it probably doesn’t exist, or it is significantly less relevant. 

Not only are companies changing, but the very definition of “fresh produce” is changing. It’s no longer a matter of what the item is, but what is the “form” of the value proposition. Is it further processed? Is it juiced? Is it part of a meal replacement kit? And that is still not enough! Is it organic? Is it local? Is it fair trade-supported? 

The question regarding how buyers have changed is a direct consequence of the evolution occurring at retail, driven by consumer demand. Yet the sales force on the supply side has, in many instances, gone about their business in much the same way as their grandparents. 

At one time, experience was a key qualification to become a produce buyer. Merchandising skills, transportation acumen, pricing strategies, and good interpersonal communication skills were required. In addition, being a produce buyer was viewed as a career. The supplier sales teams were molded to interface with those individuals. Relationships were valued. Product knowledge was shared. Collaborative sales plans were developed. 

The evolution at retail has caused a significant shift in the skill sets of today’s buyer. First, they are much younger. They are highly educated and degreed.They are often internationally savvy and culturally diverse. 

They are highly skilled in numeric analysis. They communicate via e-mail or text and avoid the phone. They have little or no merchandising skills, and in many instances have no need for them. And in most cases, they view a position in produce as a stepping stone to another role. 

The key to sales on the supplier side is to match their sales teams to the needs and responsibilities of the buyer of today. Decisions and plans must reflect the fact that there will be continued transition in who you are working with at a given time. The buyer you are working with right now may not be there tomorrow.

But most importantly, today’s sales forces must recognize that “what got you here won’t get you there.” Recognize that the changes at retailers will continue and that business has become much more dynamic. The only constant is change.

Bruce Peterson is a former produce executive with Walmart and president of Arkansas-based Peterson Insights Inc.

Submitted by Produce Guy on Mon, 08/20/2018 - 07:19

These new type of buyers are extremely disruptive to the industry. While computer and numeric analytical skills are definitely important, so are social skills, a little bit of empathy and a basic understanding of how produce grows. Most of these new buyers have neither.

The new wave of practices these buyers are imposing on the industry, such as, the unloading of the logistics responsibility solely on the supplier, the addition of fees, penalties and hidden costs throughout the buying process and, the dilution of purchasing volumes through multiple suppliers, while great ideas on paper, they have terrible effects for most in the industry.
Climate change, the scarcity of labor in the industry and the cost of increased regulation are already lowering profits for most. The addition of the above mentioned practices may prove to be too much for small and medium size growers/distributors that are already struggling to survive. It will be interesting what the net effect all these challenges will be in the industry. Are we going to end up with only huge growing operations or will the weight of these practices sink bigger outfits first and give us an extremely fragmented industry in the future? I guess we will find out soon enough...

Submitted by Oscar Olguin on Tue, 08/21/2018 - 08:33

But the challenge will always be the same for the produce department; it has to be your driven force to make the consumer a daily shopper and NOT a cherry picker shopper.
I do believe in all the updates with technology, social media new trends etc. But I also believe in this hard but fun industry you can't change the essentials,basics,standards to your produce department; your basics on merchandising,advertising and general knowledge over your department will make you succeed over the new technology and new way of buying from this new generation.

Submitted by Ewell Culbertson on Thu, 03/07/2019 - 17:34

This article describes precisely what happened to our local growers co-op in 2018. For twenty plus years, we provided the most important grocery store account in our area with locally grown fruit. Literally overnight, during the beginning days of harvest, the buying offices were closed with no notice and we found ourselves scrambling desperately to locate our new buyer. He surfaced in Ohio, you know where, don't you? He would not take our calls and needless to say orders suffered greatly. Weeks later, our salesman finally reaches a 23 year old "buyer" by phone. His response, "why should I care about your growers"? What's it going to be like when he's replaced by Artificial Intelligence?