Editor's note: The Packer 25 is an annual recognition of leaders in the produce industry. For more articles in this series, go here.

Caitlin Tierney, director of produce for 99 Cents Only Stores, has repeatedly gone the extra mile to increase her knowledge of the industry.

At the start of her career, Tierney asked to work for free in a produce department on Sundays — along with her regular job as a category assistant — so she could develop a more complete understanding of quality specifications for products.

When she took vacations, she visited farms and talked with growers about their processes and challenges.

In the ensuing years and throughout her time with 99, Tierney has continued to take a learning-oriented approach to better serve her customers.

Her major goal when she arrived at 99 was to improve the consistency of the produce offerings. She has done so through collaboration with growers, finding out what items they produce that do not make it to retail shelves, and then creating new specs just for 99.

It took roughly 18 months to build the current program, and feedback has been glowing both from the company and from shoppers.

“Our 99ers love it,” Tierney said. “We’ve established our baseline and we now continue to have double-digit growth, so it shows that our customers acknowledge that they see a difference and they’re purchasing more.”

When she became director of produce, Tierney knew a steady selection would be important both from a shopper loyalty standpoint and a business standpoint.

Previously, creating that consistency had been difficult due to price; as an extreme value retailer, the company focuses on offering affordable fresh food to the underserved.

“We sell a great deal of strawberries, but strawberries aren’t always consistent in their growing patterns,” Tierney said.

“Sometimes they come on early, sometimes they come on later, and when we were out of strawberries, we were down 15% in sales. And everyone, upper management would run and be like, ‘Why are your sales so bad?’ and your one answer was strawberries. So when you’re tied to a budget, and you’re not meeting it just due to Mother Nature, no one likes that answer.”

To solve the problem, Tierney mapped out seasonal time frames, growing regions and suppliers and began talking with companies about the possibility of buying their imperfect produce items — strawberries smaller than normally accepted for retail, for example, or ones with white shoulders.

“Her understanding of produce from the ground to the store is what makes her so good at her job,” said Rich Winters, vice president of fresh for 99. “She has a complete understanding of the supply chain, she’s rebuilt our supply chain, and she’s done a fantastic job doing it.

“Probably her greatest attribute is just how genuine and upfront and straightforward she is with everybody,” Winters said.

“She lets them know what she’s trying to achieve and how can we work with the grower-packers ... We’re servicing the underserved, and she’s very good at conveying that to the grower community.”


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