( Photo by The Packer staff )

If you read the headline and shuddered a little inside, you’re not alone. 

For many us, throwing out the rule book is just about as appealing as opening a can of worms. It’s easy to get comfortable with our processes, our boundaries, our expectations. It’s a whole lot easier to do it all correctly when we’ve done it all before, sometimes almost exactly the same way, for years or even decades.

Occasionally people and organizations take initiative to change. Other times, the go-to option is suddenly shattered. 

With the old way in pieces on the floor, there are two choices: do you throw it all out, or do you start planning a mosaic?

The United Fresh Produce Association did the latter, launching a virtual show, a first for the industry. Instead of talking in person, we used chats and messages. Instead of product sampling and demos, we enjoyed easier-than-ever access to videos and sell sheets. 

Instead of traditional networking receptions, we had Zoom meetings with breakout rooms of 6-10 people, randomly reshuffled every 10-15 minutes. General sessions were viewed on screens instead of in ballrooms.

More from United Fresh LIVE!

The connections that happen during in-person events can’t be fully recaptured online, but United Fresh’s effort provided many more connections than would have happened without the platform, and it opened up many possibilities for new ways of connecting in between in-person events.

Traditional receptions are ideal for reconnecting with friends and colleagues, and you can certainly make new connections, but it can be difficult to approach groups of folks who are in conversation already, and music can make it hard to hear each other when you do find someone open to chat. The format of the Zoom receptions, with breakout rooms mixing up people often, made the platform perfect for meeting new people and discussing industry topics.

Also, looking at the virtual booths, I discovered that a number of companies I identified with certain products did other things I had no idea about previously, and I wouldn’t have discovered their full activities if the information hadn’t been collected in an easily navigable format.

Catch Ashley's Conversations at United here

There are plenty of challenges the industry still must tackle. Sampling at retail is one topic we heard about; it has all but ceased amid COVID-19

How can retailers replicate the exposure that activity brings?

Maybe they invite random shoppers to a Zoom meeting for a live taste test and share the results on social media. Maybe they have Free Fruit Fridays during which they give whole pieces of new-crop or new-variety fruits away to shoppers who come to the store at a certain time. 

Maybe they have Facebook Live Q&A sessions with produce managers as they taste the fruit and talk about its attributes. Maybe the supplier is included in the video. The possibilities are endless.

That’s the silver lining of the pandemic: a reminder that we can do things different than we’ve always done them, and we might learn a whole lot of valuable lessons in the process.

Ashley Nickle is editor of PMG magazine and retail editor of The Packer. E-mail her at [email protected].

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