September 24, 2019
I have always listed my occupation as “salesman.” However, few sales managers would have regarded my style with customers, both before and after joining the family produce business, as that of a typical “hunter” or “closer.” I tend to want to talk about the benefits the product might offer, where it was grown and the folks that packed it. Price is always the last of my talking points.
I approach sales, especially fresh produce sales, as a problem-solving exercise requiring input from producers and end users. Frequently this approach can be difficult. Smoothing out the gyrations of a perishable supply chain can be demanding work. Weather patterns, transportation schedules, promotional opportunities, and perishability don’t easily align. It requires the wholesaler to ask a lot of questions of the supplier and customer in order to fulfill their needs and expectations. It takes effort, but this process is basic to building collaborative relationships and a business. The wholesaler must develop a genuine understanding of the pain points on both sides and the ability to reliably deliver value based on that understanding. Often this opens the door to a new opportunity through expansion of product lines or improved packaging.
Over the years my company has gravitated toward trading partners who are the most willing to take a collaborative approach to sourcing and selling. Our most successful and rewarding relationships have all been with like-minded people, both suppliers and customers. Our strongest relationships have always been with companies that make collaboration part of their corporate culture. It is important collaborative processes are valued and demonstrated throughout an organization. It is often hard to accept smaller margins, it can be inconvenient to arrange for extended receiving and shipping hours. Last-minute cuts or additions to orders can be difficult to accommodate. The willingness to discuss these things keeps the pain to a minimum and will often facilitate future business.
Some years ago, I was discussing our chile pepper offerings with a supermarket buyer. We hadn’t been able to do much business with the buyer, but as we talked he explained chile peppers were a problem because of product shrink on the shelf. He really thought he could grow the category in his stores, but forcing distribution and dumping unsold product weren’t attractive options.
It became apparent even though he wanted to stock a variety of peppers, even half-bushel cartons were a problem for many of his stores. The buyer and I worked together to develop a full line of chile peppers, custom packed each day, in a carton small enough to keep his risk minimal. This was a win-win. We opened a new channel of distribution, and his produce managers were given a tool to build sales by selecting and merchandising the varieties that worked in each store.
Of course, an unwillingness to collaborate can be disastrous both short and long term. A few years ago, we were importing colored bell peppers from Israel. Our program was built on air shipments and had been very successful until supplies from Mexico drove us to find cheaper transportation. We experimented with sea shipments that were just too slow, resulting in product shriveling and decay. A combination of air and sea shipping was developed in an effort to stay competitive and safeguard the condition of the product, although that method didn’t really save more than a few days and a few dollars.
Approaching the Christmas and New Year holidays, we saw that the market would be grossly undersupplied. We requested supplies by air directly to us in Philadelphia for a three-week period to cover the gap. Prices were quoted and air space booked. Unfortunately, the top executive at my shipper announced no direct air shipments would be made and had the air bookings canceled. He mandated we use the air/sea method that his team had developed. No consideration was given to shipping schedules or holiday demand, and no conversations were permitted about the havoc this decision might wreak on our ability to supply customers. That leader saw no value in collaborating to solve our problem. We realized we were on our own despite more than 10 years of market development across many product lines. We found another way to fulfill our commitment to our customers for the holidays, and we immediately developed new sources of peppers to minimize our dependence on that shipper.
The produce industry provides many challenges. Working together to understand each other’s needs must be a basic part of addressing and solving these challenges in a way that works for all sides.