PHILADELPHIA -- In the increasingly competitive produce supplier arena, vendors who want to be successful have to go the extra mile -- or "add value" to the services they offer retailers, a produce executive said, speaking on a panel at the Produce Marketing Association's Fresh Summit 2001 here.
Vendors who offer best quality merchandise at the best prices, on-time deliveries and knowledgeable sales reps will get their foot in the door -- but if they want to go even further and differentiate themselves from competitors, vendors have to take service to a higher level, said Craig Carlson, vice president of produce for Pathmark Stores, Carteret, N.J.
Carlson was one of three speakers on a panel that addressed, "What Retailers Really Want From Suppliers." Joining him were David S. Parker, director of merchandising for the California Tree Fruit Agreement, Reedley, Calif., and Keith Mathews, director of marketing for Rainier Fruit Co., Selah, Wash.
Carlson presented a wide range of ideas for suppliers -- from developing a partnership with the retailer to working collaboratively on category management to making sure the tiny price look-up stickers on produce items are done in appropriate colors, with numbers printed in the right font size.
In light of recent acts of terrorism and ongoing anthrax attacks, retailers are facing the possibility that the food supply could be the next target, Carlson said. Having food-safety controls in place would be another way for vendors to stand out from the crowd.
"It's going to continue to be a hot topic," Carlson said of food safety.
In light of consolidation within the supermarket industry, suppliers have fewer customers, and that's led to new responsibilities for suppliers, including merchandising, said Mathews, who offered tips from a supplier's perspective.
Providing retailers with staff training and customized packaging are just two ways to add value, he said.
Sponsoring sales contests has proven to be a successful strategy for his company, Mathews added. Technology also plays a part; it can give shippers the ability to deliver better-tasting and higher-quality merchandise, he said.
"The question I'll leave you with is, can we recover costs associated with the value and maintain profitability?" he said.
Commodity boards play an increasingly important role, Parker said.
"Our mission is to find out what's needed to get [retailers] what they want -- customer satisfaction," said Parker, whose board attempts to tailor generic promotions to serve various customers.
The California Tree Fruit Agreement gathers information by listening to several groups: retailers, consumers and researchers. Based on its research, the board concluded that consumers would buy more fruit if it was riper, tastier and juicier -- "not just sometimes -- every time," Parker said.
To achieve higher-quality fruit, retailers must not store it in coolers, the California Tree Fruit Agreement concluded. Starting in 1995, the board launched an effort to encourage retailers not to store fruit under refrigeration.
While the early results showed healthy sales increases for stores that heeded the advice, the board found other stores were still keeping the fruit in coolers. Recognizing that the old training method, which used videos and other mainstream tools to train retailers, wasn't effective, Parker and his colleagues took an entirely different approach.
They knew they had to make training simple, fun and fast, so they came up with a red, plastic handheld viewing device, with comic strip-like messages on view inside. The trademarked product, called the ViewMaster, contains images of characters in retail settings.
"We always display at room temperature," says one character in a frame depicting a produce display.
The California Tree Fruit Agreement achieved its goal of developing a training aid that doesn't take much time to use -- to view all of the frames takes only one minute, Parker said.
The product was distributed to 33,000 North American supermarkets last year, Parker said, adding 70% of stores using the training aid took fruit out of the cooler.