(Photo by Josh Feldman for Produce Retailer)
Jewel-Osco's Scott Bennett has been selected as our 2019 Produce Retailer of the Year. Check out these key points from our profile of him and read on for the details. You'll also find lots of photos and three videos, including an interview with Bennett.
- Suppliers rave about Jewel-Osco's flexibility to take more product when opportunities arise. Focusing on volume sales is a bold strategy, but it works because Bennett focuses on quality, isn't afraid to take some risk and trusts his team and the store teams to execute.
- Bennett is always pursuing improvements for Jewel-Osco produce departments, from new bins to enable better waterfall displays, to innovative merchandising solutions, to creative giveaways to boost specific categories.
- Buying for quality first, rather than only basing decisions on price, is core to Bennett's strategy. Quality will bring customers back, and long-term relationships with suppliers are key.
Suppliers appreciate the partnerships they have with Jewel-Osco produce sales and merchandising manager Scott Bennett.
A veteran of the industry, Bennett spent the first 20 years of his career with Dominick’s Finer Foods and the next 10 with Roundy’s before joining Jewel-Osco about six years ago. He started his career as a 16-year-old bagging groceries and sorting bottles, and by age 20 he was a produce manager.
Big, bold displays are Bennett’s hallmark, and what enables that strategy are strong supplier relationships and store-level execution.
“There’s a lot of people in Scott’s position who don’t want to take risk because they’re afraid to have themselves look bad — because it takes a lot of trust in your suppliers, it takes a lot of trust in your stores, it takes a lot of trust in your produce managers, basically everyone throughout the whole process, it takes a lot of trust to promote aggressively often,” said Paul Kawamura, director of sales for Irvine, Calif.-based Gem Pack Berries.
“It’s a lot easier to just kind of reel it back and do the status quo, and I think with Scott he’s willing to put himself out there and willing to take that risk," Kawamura said. “He’s been able to successfully do it, and I think it’s paid off for everybody."
Bennett has been a devotee of mass merchandising since his earliest days in the industry.
“As a young kid in the industry, and I was 16, 17 years old, I did that stuff way back then, and I tried things way back then,” Bennett said. “I always experimented on what I can do and how I can expand the department, and even at the younger ages of 17, 18 years old, and it always worked, so the mass displays always worked, and evolved as my career evolved, in many different locations, different stores, different formats, different demographics, and throughout the years I figured out what I can do in each store by demographics, by the size of the store, by the sales volume, so that’s basically how that evolved was just trial and error, and not being afraid to try something.
“That’s really what it is — don’t be afraid to try something,” Bennett said.
One element that plays into the go-big strategy and endears Bennett to suppliers is his willingness to take advantage of supply opportunities.
“My favorite thing about the way Scott retails ... is their ability to react quickly,” Kawamura said. “It’s not bad to plan months in advance, but at least for strawberries, my bloom set isn’t even out yet a lot of the times when I’m planning, so we have really no idea what our volume is going to be. We only have historicals to go off of, and in fresh produce, that rarely is the case.
“(With Scott and Jewel-Osco), I can also call them and say, ‘Hey, I have a big flush of fruit coming next week, I need to act now,’ and they’re able to react and help me move the amount of volume I need quickly, and it’s very, very unique nowadays,” Kawamura said. “It used to be more common, but very few retailers can react fast now.”
Michael Glass, key account manager for Kingsville, Ontario-based Mastronardi Produce, gave a similar description.
“When there’s opportunities or deals, sometimes we get long with product or we have excess product to move, Scott’s one of the first calls we make because he is so reactive,” Glass said. “For the size of that chain, it’s kind of unique compared to some of our other customers with how quick they can move.”
Gino DiBuduo, director of sales for Parlier, Calif.-based SunWest Fruit Co., said he made his first deal with Bennett the same day they met, right there in the store.
“When you get ready to talk to Scott, you better know your costs, you better know your volume, you better know your times, because he wants to make a deal,” DiBuduo said. “There’s no fluff, there’s no nothing. When he wants to make a deal, he wants to make a deal, and that’s what he’s coming to do, whether he’s coming to town to visit, whether you see him at a tradeshow. If you want Scott’s time, you better be prepared to offer him a deal.”
Bennett attributes the potential for quick turnarounds to his colleagues.
“Our store teams are very good at merchandising,” Bennett said. “They understand the plan. They understand when we have a market buy or a flush of product. So it’s kind of easy for us because the stores are already trained ... I’ll say, okay, fine, we’ll pull the trigger, we’ll buy those 10,000 cases of strawberries, put them in the stores, and the stores know how to merchandise. They know what to do, and so it’s a no-brainer for us.
“Being nimble is number one when you pull that much product fast, unplanned product, and our stores are really good at it,” Bennett said.
Assistant sales manager Monique Hoguet noted a few other factors that go into the retailer’s ability to be flexible.
“It’s not easy to move as fast as we do and (be) very nimble, but there’s only basically three of us in the office ... so there’s not a lot of people to have to go to ask questions, ‘Can we do this? Can we do this?’” Hoguet said. “And if we can’t get it in an ad, we’ll do it as a fast attack.
"It also helps that the days our ads go to print isn’t far out from when we proof it and everything, so it’s like we can put something in the ad almost a week before it goes out on the street because we handle our own printing and everything," Hoguet said.
Fast attacks are when a buyer gets a great deal on a large amount of product — 10,000 cases of strawberries, for example. The produce operations specialists, who each oversee about 20 stores, then assign different amounts to stores based on what they have space for and what volume they can move. The product comes into stores in time to be on display Friday night or Saturday morning and is usually sold out by the end of Monday. It’s another way to take advantage of what the market has to offer.
Bennett is constantly seeking those kinds of opportunities.
“He looks for deals and he finds them because he talks to the vendors and the growers and the farmers all the time,” Hoguet said. “He gets good camaraderie with them. It’s just who he is.”
DiBuduo described consistent and straightforward communication as one of Bennett’s attributes.
“You always know where you stand with him, whether or not you like the answer or not, you at least have a very clear picture as far as where you stand with your relationship with him or on an opportunity with him at that given time, and it’s all you can really ask for,” DiBuduo said.
“He’s just a really good person,” DiBuduo said. “If he says he’s going to do something, he’s going to keep his word ... Integrity goes a long way. It’s a big deal in this business.”
Supply opportunities are not the only ones Bennett looks to leverage. He is always thinking about creative ways to move more product.
“He gets really innovative,” said Michael Gatz, director of business development for Rosholt, Wis.-based Bushman’s. “If he sees sales are flat, he’s pushing us to come up with new and better ads and some retail opportunities.”
Jewel-Osco has even given away a Chevrolet Camaro as part of a potato promotion.
“We saw a lift that was fantastic without having to drop our prices and without him having to lower their retails either, so it was a win-win,” Gatz said.
On another occasion, Bushman’s talked with Bennett about research that showed there was still interest in 20-pound bags of potatoes, and Bennett went big with them to see what would happen.
“We couldn’t keep them in stock — we did an ad with them, and they went through the roof,” Gatz said. “Unfortunately it did hinder some of the other potato sales, so we don’t always want to do that, because when consumers are buying 20 pounds at a time they might not be going every single week back for potatoes.”
The willingness to experiment, however, is what keeps the departments engaging.
“He’ll try things, and I think that’s what keeps the category fresh out there, and that’s why we keep seeing the growth in potatoes,” Gatz said.
Glass recalled one meeting with Bennett in which Mastronardi presented a display idea and Bennett responded with a unique way to give the products even more real estate.
“He one-upped us and said, ‘Well, why don’t we do this – why don’t we put these racks in, branded with your Sunset brand on the sides?’” Glass said. “They’re basically huge baking or bread racks that they put in the store that he can showcase the product vertically to get more space on the floor.”
DiBuduo noted that along with being creative, Bennett and his team are brilliant with their numbers — making prices and margins across the department work in harmony.
“The produce department’s got to be profitable, without a doubt, and it’s easy to set a margin on all items, but when you’re trying to move volume, you need to be able to be willing to give up that margin to move the tonnage,” DiBuduo said. “It’s a great strategy, and he knows exactly what he thinks it’s going to cost him if he takes it at a loss leader, and what other items he will be able to make back that money on.
“It’s a very aggressive strategy, but I think we’ve seen Jewel do a complete 180 since (he) has been there, and it’s because his strategy has worked,” DiBuduo said. “A lot of people try that, but it’s hard to be successful at it, especially with being a premium retailer, and he’s done a great job with it. He knows how to move product, he knows how to set aggressive prices, and he knows how to make money.”
Another part of the equation is that freshness and quality are areas in which Bennett won’t compromise.
“He’s a stickler for quality,” Hoguet said. “Granted, everybody wants a cheap cost, but he doesn’t go on cost, he goes on quality first, because that’s what will resonate. He wants to make sure it’ll last in the customer’s home – not necessarily just last on the shelf, but last in the customer’s home so they come back again.”
Passion for produce
Hoguet, who has known Bennett for about two decades, calls him a genius.
“He always has a different way of looking at stuff than anybody else,” Hoguet said. “He’s got so many ideas. He says he has ideas to last him for the next 50 years.”
Bennett recently created custom display bins to line up with the existing fixtures so the departments can have seamless waterfall displays. The bins have photos of the fruits that they’re being used to merchandise — bins with apple images for the apple display, bins with berry photos for the berry display, and so on.
For a store that recently had a grand reopening, Bennett made some wood displays bins at his home so the dimensions would fit perfectly into the space on the edge of the department.
Bennett is a big-picture thinker who cares about the details, too.
“When you meet with Scott, 50% of the time it’s not in his office, it’s following him around a produce department ... talking to him about your products as he’s merchandising,” said John Carpenter, president of Oak Brook, Ill.-based Focus Sales and Marketing. “He constantly is fixing displays, he’s constantly moving things around on the floor, even when you’re talking to him. He’ll grab some of the produce guys and say, ‘Listen, this doesn’t belong here. Move it over here.’
“Every time he walks into a store his demeanor changes, his eyes change — they go right to the produce department,” Carpenter said.
He describes Bennett as someone with an uncompromising passion for produce and for perfection, and when he is making deals, his vision for the stores is always in mind.
“He knows exactly what he wants, where he wants it and when he wants it, so the sooner you understand that about the way he does business, the sooner you’ll be able to conform to the way he lays out a produce department,” Carpenter said. “For him, it goes backwards — it starts at store level and goes back to the buying end of it.
“If it doesn’t work at store level, it doesn’t matter what the product is sitting in front of him when he’s buying it – it doesn’t work,” Carpenter said. “When you put a presentation together, first thing you do is you work backwards: you go into a store, see where it fits, how it fits, and if it visually is acceptable. If it doesn’t, he’ll be way ahead of you in the presentation and go, ‘That doesn’t work and here’s why,’ so don’t waste his time and don’t waste yours.”
Across the board, suppliers describe Bennett as an enjoyable person and great at his job.
“For non big-box, so basically for more traditional retailers, they’re pretty much the gold standard,” Kawamura said. “I wish everyone was able to do it like they do.”