Packer Interview - Rob Ybarra with Coborn's
Suppliers and buyers hustle between sessions at the PMA Fresh Connections Retail event. ( Ashley Nickle )

PHILADELPHIA — With an eye toward growing produce sales together, buyers and suppliers discussed convenience, food safety, organics, trends and more at the PMA Fresh Connections Retail event April 10-11.

Produce Marketing Association CEO Cathy Burns gave the keynote, reviewing innovative developments in the food space and highlighting the plant-based conversation as an area in which produce needs to assert itself.

Breakout sessions covered topics including seasonal and local, keeping produce as the competitive advantage, experiential shopping, driving sales in core categories and more.

That part of the event was conversational in nature, with a moderator kicking off a topic and retailers and grower-shippers offering thoughts back and forth.

The format was really great,” said Meghan Diaz, senior manager of produce procurement for the Southeast with Sprouts Farmers Market. “This was nice because it was a more intimate setting to where you can customize what you want to pull away from it, and I think that was very valuable.

"I was able to go and focus on local/regional in one of the breakout sessions, and then retail trends, that was a really interesting one as well, and it was great to talk with people from different sides of the industry," Diaz said.

She described the sessions as providing lots of great information.

“With the local/regional breakout session, (it was) really pulling away how to identify and how to connect with the consumer and some of the pinch points that the growers feel, some that we feel, and how we can really connect the grower to us to the consumer, that side of it,” Diaz said.

Mimmo Franzone, director of produce and floral for Longo Brothers Fruit Markets, also said the event was a worthwhile one.

It was fantastic,” Franzone said. “A lot of information on both sides of the business, on the grower side and on the retail side.

“I was able to sort of educate a little bit on how we do things and how we want to push things forward in the future, and also learn from the grower-shipper side on what things they’re doing and how we can take that back and utilize it at our stores,” Franzone said.

He attended the session on convenience, which included discussion on packaging and the tension between the consumer demand for convenience and the desire for more sustainable products.

His takeaway was that a retailer has to decide on a packaging strategy and stay true to it because it is impossible to fulfill the wish list of every shopper.

Some want no packaging at all, and some want sustainable packaging. Some want sustainably grown product first and foremost. Some just care about the convenience and shelf life of the product.

“You can’t be everything to everyone, so I think what I took away from it is pick a story and run with it and try your best to sort of fulfill those goals,” Franzone said. “We’re trying to eliminate packaging from our stores, but at the same time there’s customers that want that convenience factor.

“You can’t tackle everything from five, six different angles, so it’s like pick a couple stories and do your best, achieve what you can,” Franzone said.

Rob Ybarra, director of produce and floral at Coborn’s, participated in the sessions April 11 and also the invitation-only think tank the previous day.

I thought it was a really good session, really informative,” Ybarra said. “It was a no-holds-(barred) kind of session where everybody kind of just said what they were feeling, and I think that’s important.

“Some of the takeaways really is we need to communicate more openly, honestly,” Ybarra said. “I believe yesterday I saw kind of everybody just wanting to do better together because we see all the changes that are happening in the industry.”

He mentioned Burns’ message about plant-based, which was that the produce industry has to get involved in that conversation because otherwise marketers in the meat industry could spin plant-based burgers as counting toward the goal of five fruits and vegetables a day.

I think as an industry we need to collaborate and be the innovators in what’s new out there,” Ybarra said.

Training and education of store-level personnel came up as a topic in several of the sessions.

A couple of retailers noted that plug-and-play solutions are ideal, such as a video on a new variety that can be sent to produce managers, or a set of ready-to-use social media messages, photos and videos that can be deployed easily by the retailer’s digital person.

Several people noted that bringing store-level personnel into fields or orchards has a hugely positive effect on engaging that group, but taking the time and money to make such trips can be difficult.

In some situations, it might make sense for suppliers to go straight to produce managers with information about a local item, a new product or a new variety.

I’m a lot more flexible now in the way communication gets to our stores,” Ybarra said. “We have a big local program that we pride ourselves on, and so I encourage the farming community, the growers, to actually go and speak to the produce managers and produce teams so they can educate that team before they even educate us.

"It’s kind of like a simultaneous type of partnership," Ybarra said. "It’s not about, ‘You own it,’ but ‘Help me with it,’ because there’s a lot less time now to do things like that.Time’s of the essence now, and we have smaller staffs, let’s face it. We don’t have the buying team that we had five years ago, it’s less.

"So those are some things that I’m being more flexible on, is how to get that (information out) — as long as they communicate with me on what they’re going to talk about and we’re on the same page, absolutely," Ybarra said. "I think that’s the way to grow the business.”

The event closed with an address by Morning News Beat editor Kevin Coupe, who encouraged companies to be innovative and to invest in people.

To illustrate the example of how key it is to establish a human connection with shoppers, Coupe gave the example of the exercise bike Peloton, which includes classes with different instructors.

Coupe noted that everyone he has talked with that has a Peloton has a favorite instructor.

How many retailers have those people in the stores?” Coupe said.

He suggested that companies can look at talent as a cost or as an investment and that one of the ways to differentiate is with great people.

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