Let's just acknowledge right up front that the supermarket industry has already cooked up more alphabet soup than even the Pentagon would find seemly, and for some reason the recipe always seems to call for those pesky three-letter combinations.
But let's set that aside for a moment to take a look at PLUs. Price Look Up codes are by no means a new consideration, but presentations and conversations at last week's annual convention of the Produce Marketing Association in San Antonio made it clear that they are central to the way future business will be done in supermarket produce departments. The rising wave of interest in industrywide PLU standards also helps answer that long-standing question of how perishables departments, characterized by bulk and random-weight products, can get aboard the move toward efficiency. And that's good news, since becoming efficient in every department of the store may be the price the future will exact just to stay in the game.
PLUs, of course, are those four-digit numbers on the little stickers affixed to everything from apples to zucchini, assuming they aren't prepackaged and marked with a Universal Product Code. PLUs make it possible for front-end workers to do no more than punch in the four numbers and weigh the product to correctly ring it up. This technology has been around for a few years, but Bryan Silbermann, PMA's executive vice president, pointed out that a PLU "critical mass" has been reached in the industry: It looks as though about 5,000 supermarkets in the nation will be using the industry-standard PLUs by year's end, compared with about 2,000 at the end of last year.
"The standard PLU codes are becoming an accepted way of doing business for many major marketers. Packing lines are being changed to handle new equipment, which applies stickers after items are sized." Bryan's comments came during a freewheeling presentation on PLUs made to a packed convention workshop session in San Antonio. Session panelists also represented retailers, growers and equipment vendors -- the vendors of the equipment that attaches stickers to produce items.
The growth of PLUs has been sparked by a couple of factors, chief among them the industry's growing acceptance of the code-range standardization (4011 through 4959), promulgated by the Uniform Code Council. Without such acceptance, a cacophony of codes would remain in place, each separately devised by every retailer in the land, and make centralized sticker applications impractical. Also, it's unmistakable that retailers will benefit prodigiously by the efficiency of being able to get some handle on price accuracy and the details of precise product movement at retail. "Marketing campaigns are being built around a supplier's ability to label variety items with a unique PLU," Bryan said. "This allows the retailer to price that variety according to the price he paid, rather than averaging across that commodity because his cashiers might incorrectly ring the item."
So while the new age of PLUs might be an unmitigated benefit to those retailers opting to use them, vigorous comments made by growers during the workshop's question period showed there's another side to the issue, and a side that could slow the march to universal PLU use.
One problem growers talked about is that since the industry is still in the transition period on the standardized PLUs, some retailers want them and some don't.
One speaker told of receiving letters from retailers who demand that all product have PLU stickers applied. These retailers threaten that if they aren't applied, shipments will be rejected. He also told of other retailers who don't want to use the standardized PLUs. If shipments arrive with those PLUs attached, these retailers too will reject shipments. And, it seems, retailers are actually making good on these threats. And then, there's the matter of cost: Some growers who spoke during the question period saw the PLU issue as an ill-disguised campaign by retailers to shift costs they used to bear to growers. After all, it's the growers who must now deal with the fantastic complexity of applying tiny stickers, with correct numbers, to individual produce items. And it's growers who must obtain equipment to do the job.
But whatever may be the obstacles, it can't be doubted for long that standardized PLUs are on their way. So look to next week's SN for a detailed news article about how this important issue played out at PMA.