Produce wholesalers in St. Louis say business has grown since the years of the Great Recession of 2008-09, but they also say the local economy has room for further improvement.

Consumers seem to have more disposable income than they had two or three years ago and, indeed, unemployment had dropped from nearly 6% in mid-2015 to below 5% in June 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

There are indications that the economy persists in "flat" territory, which ultimately is reflected in some produce sectors, said Dominic Greene, vice president of operations and sales manager with St. Louis wholesaler United Food and Produce Co.

"We think what we've seen recently in recent reports is some of the restaurant spending has gone down," Greene said.

Produce is still selling, but it has moved into the retail sector, rather than restaurants, Greene said.

"It's kind of flat, to a little up, economically overall," he said.

Stores appear to be competing vigorously for those sales, said Dan Pupillo Jr., president of St. Louis wholesaler Midwest Best Produce Co. Inc.

"I've seen, at the retail level, it seems there's a much greater urgency for competition," he said.

Margins have "tightened up," even in stores that normally cater to "higher-end" shoppers, Pupillo noted.

Ads at all stores seem to be offering "more aggressive pricing" than before, Pupillo said.

"They've been having a pretty good push for volume in the summer," he said. "Hopefully, it continues for the rest of the summer and into the fall."

However, not everyone agrees that one sector - or region - is benefitting at the expense of another.

"You're feeling it across the board everywhere; it is what it is, and you make the best of it," Heimos said.

Dale Vaccaro, president and owner of wholesaler Vaccaro & Sons Produce Co., said the local economy may not be as vibrant as it once was, but it has not fluctuated as wildly as in other metro areas.

"We didn't get hit as hard as some of the other areas in the United States with the housing boom and bust," he said.

Duane Talbert, salesman and owner at wholesaler Adolph & Ceresia Produce Co., said he had no complaints.

"It's been good," he said.

Business usually trails off in the summer for foodservice distributor Sunfarm Foodservice Inc., so gauging current economic trends could be difficult, said R.J. Barrios, buyer for wholesaler Sunfarm Foodservice Inc.

"I haven't seen much of a downturn, but also it's summer and summer is not a big time for the produce business in our area," he said.

Retailers say they are feeling the effects of a so-so local economy.

"The economy is not horrible, but it's not robust," said Steve Duello, produce director at Dierbergs Markets in suburban Chesterfield, Mo.

The latest list of the Fortune 500 came out in June 2016, and St. Louis had nine entries; however, the metro area has lost some its corporate muscle, and that inevitably affects all sales, including produce, Duello said.

"Corporate headquarters, a lot of them, have already left the area, and the population hasn't grown," Duello said.

It could be worse, though, Duello said.

"I think the local economy and population as such have not helped our sales, but again, it's not getting bad, either," he said. "It's not worse than anywhere else."

Clayton, Mo.-based Straub's Markets leans toward a "different shopper" than other chains, so economic forces don't seem to be as much of a factor for its customers, said Greg Lehr, produce director.

But Straub's shoppers still are looking for good value, Lehr said.

"If they come in and it's a fancy peach, they feel they want it and it's a value to them, they're going to buy it," he said.

Steven Mayer, vice president of produce at Schnuck Markets Inc., one of the largest local retail chains, said the local economy was showing signs of improvement.

"With gas prices going down, people tend to buy more," he said.

 
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