Buyers, Stay Connected With Your Suppliers

Originally printed in the August 2020 issue of Produce Business.

In these uncertain times with the COVID-19 pandemic, communication between all partners in the produce industry is vital. To meet the challenges presented by this unusual situation, we must all utilize everyone’s talents and efforts to provide the solutions needed to survive this period of uncertainty and be prepared to move forward when the opportunity presents itself. To do this, successful retailers must initiate and pursue constant communication and contact with all members of their supply chain.

While technology is important, personal contact is far more valuable in cultivating and preserving relationships within the produce industry. When such contact is proposed to upper management, they often dismiss it as an unnecessary use of resources and time, and that the utilization of technology should suffice in maintaining communications with our suppliers. Here is yet another occasion where upper management shows its lack of understanding of the inner workings of the produce industry and what is needed to maintain a high level of performance. Once more, their attitude of relying on technology alone shows “they just don’t get it!”

The maintenance of personal contact with the various entities throughout the supply chain that keep your operation moving forward should be the focus of every innovative retail operation. Uncertainty and worry can spread through the supply chain faster than any virus and can erode the confidence of even the most experienced and seasoned produce veteran. As we all know, our business is based upon personal contact and relationships. From day one, this business has been one of honor and tradition, with most of the business being conducted with mutual trust and a “handshake” between the two parties. This long-standing tradition has proven to be the glue that holds the industry together. To abandon his successful business model would be to threaten the very foundation of our business.

To initiate the action of promoting personal contact with all of your vendors, suppliers and partners is the responsibility of produce management. The best possible contacts would be to physically visit the actual locations of your partners to have a face-to-face meeting and discussion of your mutual goals and needs. While this type of contact is difficult to achieve during the present pandemic, it can be done with planning and dedication. The easiest way to begin these types of personal contacts would be to work with your local growers.

Whatever the future brings, the maintenance of the personal relationships and trust that exist between partners within the produce industry will be absolutely crucial to not only the survival but the continued success and growth of our industry.

Put on your mask, drive out to their operation and discover what their challenges are (while maintaining social distancing) and what you can do to help them provide you with the goods and services your operation needs. This simple act will help to ease the minds of your local suppliers and allow them to understand what your needs are and that you have confidence in them to continue providing you with the kind of products and services they always supplied to help you and your operation move forward.

Contacting longer-distance and international suppliers is much harder to do. If at all possible, try to see if you can’t meet with them in their own operations (in the USA), and if that is not possible, then place a personal telephone call. This personal call can be the valuable and needed assurance from you to your suppliers that they are still vitally important to your operation, that your plan is to support them through all of the upcoming uncertainty and that you have confidence in them that they can continue to provide the excellence you require for your operation. Without the ability to meet in person with these long-distance suppliers due to the lack of a PMA convention this year, this type of personal outreach is vital to maintaining your relationships throughout the industry. So take the initiative and reach out to these key partners.

We all agree that the whole world, as well as our industry, is in a state of flux. We are all working toward the “new normal” without knowing what that may be. Whatever the future brings, the maintenance of the personal relationships and trust that exist between partners in the transaction of business within the produce industry will be absolutely crucial to not only the survival but the continued success and growth of our industry. So please take a few minutes and call one of your suppliers or take a ride onto his operation and show your commitment to maintaining your relationship with them.

It will go a long way to maintaining the foundation you have built and ensure the continued growth and success of your operation.

Don Harris is a 41-year veteran of the produce industry, with most of that time spent in retail. He worked in every aspect of the industry, from “field-to-fork” in both the conventional and organic arenas. Harris is presently consulting. Comments can be directed to