I chuckle to myself when I start thinking about “gamechangers,” as it’s often true someone’s perspective depends on how long an individual has been associated with a particular industry.
In my case, I started working in a grocery store bagging groceries when I was 16 and was “promoted” to the produce department at 17. At the risk of dating myself, this means I’ve been associated with the produce industry for over 50 years!!
In this time, I’ve witnessed many gamechangers. For example, a refrigerated fresh rack was an entirely new experience for me. Before, we had to pull the entire rack at night and for cooling overnight.
Each morning we would set the fresh rack up anew—and this was a major retailer in Detroit. I then remember going to a different store and seeing my first pallet jack. The idea of moving an entire skid at a time, as opposed to using a two-wheeler, was amazing.
Those of us who have been around for a while know how HUGE the fax machine was, as well as UPC codes, then PLU codes. The entire development of South American imports, products traditionally associated with summer, brought a year-round offering.
Clearly, packaged salads and how the industry moved further into processed fruits and vegetables not only changed how consumers thought about fresh produce, but how retailers marketed it. The whole movement to prepackaging had a major impact on how products were offered to consumers. These things have now become mainstream.
More recent advances in technology have materially impacted the produce industry, including smartphones, RFID, GPS, QR codes, and robotics.
But, in no particular order, here are a few things I think will truly change the industry going forward.
Water Management– I’ve been talking about this for some time, but it’s finally getting the attention of the industry. Areas of this country are already in a severe drought and state and local officials are being forced to implement restrictions on water usage. For years, farmers have been selling their water rights as they’ve been more valuable than the land itself. But with this resource dwindling away, agriculture will take a major hit. Proposals already exist for resources to go to “more productive” land, fallowing “less productive” fields. The organic industry better take notice, as generally speaking, yield per acre is less than their conventional counterparts.
The Definition of “Fresh”– I mentioned packaged salads earlier. Back in the day, a bag of salad would not have been considered a fresh salad. Or juice sold in the produce department—is this “fresh” produce? The theme for the Produce for Better Health Foundation (which folds into IFPA’s Foundation for Fresh Produce in 2023) is “Have A Plant”—soybeans are a plant, so does that make the Impossible Burger a produce item? How about frozen foods? Or products treated to extend shelf life, are they still fresh items? While this might sound a bit extreme, how fresh produce is defined will have a significant impact on how and where the produce department fits into a store.
Social Media/Internet Marketing– The advent of social media and internet marketing has had the biggest impact on how consumers approach the purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables, and how the buyer/seller relationship is viewed. First, consumers now validate purchase decisions through social media. Facebook, Twitter, etc. have all replaced former sources of information. The proliferation of virtual meetings is changing how buyers and sellers interact, and the Covid pandemic accelerated online purchases. How important will going to a store be for future consumers?
So, as I mentioned, what a person considers a gamechanger is largely determined by how long one has been around. I’m still grateful for that pallet jack, as it saved me a lot of energy.
But I’m really curious about how the passage of time will define what today’s gamechangers will be.
This is column from the September/October 2022 issue of Produce Blueprints Magazine. Click here to read the whole issue.