In the face of a pandemic, retailers are the heroes

In the face of a pandemic, retailers are the heroes

March was a very long year.

Like most of you, in my lifetime I have experienced historic global, national and local events, but none of us has ever experienced anything like COVID-19.

The initial sting of panic buying and hoarding of food and nonfood products has now passed, and we have all settled into our new – and what I believe to be temporary – normal.

We all realize these are unprecedented times. We have been thrust into learning how to social distance, self-isolate and be productive as a virtual work force. Everything in life has been disrupted.

And many are not so fortunate. As many businesses have been shuttered through no fault of their own, the supply chain has been turned upside down in less than a month.

So now the question is: How do we adjust to these challenges?

They say necessity is the mother of invention. Well, if that is the case, we should have a load of invention, innovation and – maybe just as important – new relationships coming out of this experience.

The retail landscape

As supermarkets worked feverishly to keep up with the initial demand, it simply wasn’t close to enough. However, because we have a robust supply chain, within a week most retailers reported conditions were improving quickly.

Then, just as fast as demand went up, demand leveled off in late March. In the latest weekly sales trend data prepared for PMA by IRI, it’s clear the spike in fresh produce demand was short-lived. In April we should see demand increase again, but that may depend on retailers’ promotional strategies.

Keep promotions going

April offers opportunity, from Easter to spring crops becoming abundantly available. Now is the time for retailers to be the hero for farmers and producers who prepared for normal business and demand patterns when planting their crops for spring production.

Certainly, there are challenges: reduced store hours, reduced staff, reduced number of SKUs – not to mention travel and other restrictions that inhibit normal customer patterns.

But I don’t think we can just accept that we can’t do anything about it.

Demand is still trending above seasonal averages on some categories, and soon spring and early summer crops from the East and West Coasts will create more stresses on supply if the current situation lasts longer than expected.

Win-win-win opportunity

PMA’s weekly Virtual Town Hall discussions have provided insight from across the supply chain on the challenges and the opportunities we face. Retailers can save the day. Let’s look at the opportunities:

Use fresh produce to drive promotional activity – grab the front-page feature spot. Many retailers use fresh meat to create the best ad image. Allow fresh produce to be the driver. Fresh produce is key to a healthy immune system, and shoppers are looking for opportunities to improve their health and disease resistance.

Market spot-buy opportunities will be available, so look outside of normal turn procurement practices, pick up the phone and call a grower-shipper.

Communicate clearly with your store operations team and customers alike that fresh produce is safe to consume. Use these resources to build confidence, drive home the health messaging, and increase consumer buying habits. PMA’s #JoyOfFresh toolkit with direct-to-consumer messaging is free for members to use.

Think outside of the box (or store) as more companies and municipalities put limits on how many people can be in the store at once. Create an outdoor promotion, a farmer’s market sale/tent sale. Springtime is the perfect time for these kinds of activities. And now more than ever, we need to increase customer traffic and impulse purchasing.

Be a true partner with the supply side. Although now is the time to be entrepreneurial, it also the time to be looking forward. If farmers cannot sell their crop this season and sustain business, what are the chances they will be there next season?

These are historic times, to be sure, for everyone. It is in these times when the fresh produce industry always pulls together. I don’t know if we have ever needed each other more than we do today, tomorrow, forever.

This column is part of a series by Joe Watson, who spent 30-plus years as the director of produce for Rouses Markets and was named Produce Retailer of the Year in 2014. Joe now serves as a vice president of member engagement for PMA.