Looking back on 2020 and looking ahead to 2021

Looking back on 2020 and looking ahead to 2021

2020 began with so much promise, the stage set for a record year for the economy. Those expectations quickly changed in March, however, and due to the still-raging pandemic, there remain numerous challenges to overcome.

For most businesses, this harrowing year has often felt like flying the airplane while building it, and yet so much good has come out of an incredibly turbulent period.

Consider the opportunities that have been created as the old ways of doing business have paused amid the pandemic.

  • New connections – Across the supply chain, individuals and companies alike have created new relationships out of a need to address unique and shared challenges. Conversations around safe business practices and improving and ensuring consumer trust are paramount.


  • Rethinking distribution – The pandemic pushed companies together out of a sheer need to meet demand and in the process created new opportunities for working across competitive lines where synergies exist to move product from source to end user quickly, efficiently and safely.


  • Remote working – As of the writing of this column, many are still not back in their typical office space. Some may never go back to the way office space was utilized before the pandemic. Technologies that were already available, but rarely used, are now primary business tools.


  • Hybrid and virtual events – After March 2020, almost all scheduled in-person events were canceled. Virtual was the only game in town to bring our industry together. In 2021, hybrid events and eventually in-person events will return. The timing, of course, centers on the status of the pandemic.


  • E-commerce – With triple-digit growth in the e-commerce space, we can expect more infrastructure to be built into retailer strategies to capitalize on digital dollars and to grow market share. We’ll also see whether dark stores will be the answer to handling the growth of the e-commerce business for brick-and-mortar retailers.


  • Talent and training – Retailers have added more staff to store operations to handle the growth in sales, and with that growth comes with a significant challenge: the basic training of all the new associates while focusing on planning and executing against historic sales increases for months in a row.


Growth and opportunity

It’s been instructive for me to compare 2020 to my own experiences not related to a pandemic, but rather a strategic growth period with the company I spent 33 years with.

In 2007, our company purchased 17 locations from the Great A&P Co. At the time, our company had 15 locations, so we were more than doubling our footprint. We developed a very aggressive opening schedule that included requiring every employee in the acquired stores to reapply and hiring additional staff on top of what each store previously employed.

Then we set out to close and reopen all 17 locations in one month. I vividly remember testing the closing and reopening plan in one of the locations to determine if we would be able to execute as planned.

There were bumps, especially getting through the closing inventory process, but once we overcame that hurdle the merchandising team took over and cleaned out, reset, merchandised and properly signed the departments. The learnings we gained from that opening we applied to our overall plan.

Then we rolled out the full schedule of closing and reopening four locations each week for four weeks. What we learned very quickly was that, as we opened stores and moved on to the next group, we left in our wake a training vacuum which left our company disappointed in the daily execution of the store operation teams.

Our company standard of execution was far greater than what many of the rehired associates were accustomed to, and by the time we completed all of the store openings, we were forced to replace associates we had lost in the process.

It was a hard and costly lesson, to say the least. They say the cost of training is the check you do not write. What we found was that, when training is left to chance, the costs are higher than if a thoughtful investment had been made at the start.

Speaking of training …

Each year retailers create a strategy they believe will bring value to their customers and success to their business. Almost every year, included in that plan is training and education of their teams, yet all too often training is one of the first things to get cut or not executed at all because there is a sense that training is happening through best practices being passed down from the most skilled to the least skilled associates.

When the Produce Marketing Association interviewed retailers and produce leaders on the greatest needs for their business, however, training was listed across the board as a strategic need.

The greatest opportunity with most all retailers is the basic blocking and tackling that new associates miss out on due to the incredible constraints of meeting a labor budget.

Retailers each have their own perspectives on how to display, product mix and placement, color break and inventory management based on delivery schedules and turns. It would be difficult to develop a training product that encompassed all those variables, but gaps that can be more easily and universally addressed in onboarding and training new associates are best practices in five key areas: supply chain, top produce items, food safety, customer focus and interaction and effective merchandising.

Those are the areas of focus in PMA’s new training solution for retail produce departments. Part of PMA’s FreshEd Academy, the new program makes its debut after months of research, planning and development along with strong support from PMA’s Retail Task Force – made up of industry volunteer leaders and members from retailers and wholesale grocers from the U.S. and Canada.

We’re quickly approaching 2021, a year the United Nations has designated as the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables to bring awareness on the nutritional benefits of produce.

Training and education of frontline associates will be vital to bring this message to life with consumers. Let’s make 2021 a year of training and education as well.