Editor's note: This is the first in a series of columns 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.

I was struck by the level of passion and compassion expressed by produce suppliers and buyers during the three-hour PMA thinkTank session that kicked off the recent Fresh Connections Retail event.

About 20 industry leaders participated in the invitation-only session, designed to engage thought partners in vibrant dialogue around pressing issues facing the industry.

One thing was clear – relationships still matter, maybe even more now than in the past.

The push and pull of the buyer-supplier relationship can be challenging. As one participant stated, “We really need to communicate more openly, honestly. Everybody just wants to do better together because we all see the changes that are happening in the industry.”

Yet so often we hear that buyers are only interested in cost of goods. But are they?

It’s really a matter of personal interaction and understanding a buyer’s needs rather than focusing on achieving a transaction.


Beyond the sale

During the thinkTank, participants discussed the value of a “high-touch” relationship between buyer and supplier. Buyers need dependable, consistent suppliers who deliver on what they say they can do, while the supplier needs the volume the buyer can provide.

Consider your partnerships.

Does the conversation include these critically important elements needed to set expectations and establish a successful relationship, or does it stop at price?

Collaboration was another theme that emerged from the PMA thinkTank. Those who have sat in the buyer’s seat, as I have, understand that what the buyer truly wants to see when a prospective supplier is giving his or her pitch is passion for the product or service.

A buyer forms an impression of the value of a product before he knows the cost. So what is a supplier to do? Understand the buyer bears the full weight of developing a plan to market to the customer. The buyer has already determined whether the product will be successful, and many times his initial response is based on the support the supplier is willing to provide.

During my years as a buyer, if a salesperson came in with a comprehensive sales plan that was executable and increased my confidence that the product would be successful, the chances of getting the product approved went up. However, the salesperson had to be committed to stand behind what she said she was going to do.

A buyer has fires burning in every corner, every day, so the last thing he needs is another heavy lift to introduce a product.

The salesperson must be aware of this fact and assure the buyer that she will be there for the initial merchandising rollout to stores and follow-ups on an agreed timeline.


Information and ideas

A buyer wants a differentiated approach to selling – beyond price – in many cases, and this is where the greatest collaboration can take place.

As a buyer, I was always looking to do something no one else was doing, from the standpoint of not just which products were being offered but how they were being offered.

As a supplier, don’t be afraid to suggest the unthinkable.

I remember on one occasion my fresh artichoke supplier came to me and said the market I was in was the third largest for artichoke consumption in the entire country behind San Francisco and New York City. That comment immediately had me considering how to capitalize on this.

Together we came up with the World’s Largest Artichoke Display. My supplier was right there with us the entire way, even bringing in an artichoke grower, artichoke character, cooking demonstrations, media and tons of promotion. This was something that we could say no one else would or could do in our market.

It differentiated us from our competitors, and our customers rewarded us with a huge increase in artichoke sales.

The lesson in this example is to not limit your imagination, but to challenge what would normally be done and do something amazing.



Lastly, talent and building a bench is not a new idea at retail. But it’s potentially more difficult in this day and time. Many PMA thinkTank participants openly discussed challenges, which varied by company, but all agreed having a skilled workforce is a competitive advantage.

One participant asked the group, “Do retailers consider labor an expense or an investment?”

We must, as an industry, figure out ways to communicate how rewarding a career in produce at retail can be. That’s a passion we all share and must rally around.  

Joe Watson is the Produce Marketing Association’s vice president of member engagement for the eastern U.S. He joined PMA in 2015 as vice president of domestic business development and assumed his current role in 2018. As noted earlier, previously Joe was the director of produce for Rouses Markets for 32 years. Joe was named Produce Retailer of the Year in 2014.




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