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.