Over the course of the year, we pay tribute to 35 living Vanguards and 12 departed heroes. This month’s featured Vanguard is Bob DiPiazza of Dominicks / Sam’s Club / Sun Pacific / DiPiazza Consulting Services
Originally printed in the October 2020 issue of Produce Business.
Bob DiPiazza’s remarkable, multifaceted impact on the industry spans 50 years, from his trend-setting moves as vice president produce/group vice president merchandising at Dominick’s Finer Foods, to his groundbreaking role as senior vice president of perishables for Sam’s Club, to his innovative product and development role as president of Sun Pacific Marketing. He continues to make indelible imprints, providing consulting services to the supermarket and club industry and their allied supplier base, and by serving on multiple industry boards and committees to help the industry grow and prosper.
“When Bob was at Dominick’s, through its evolutionary stages from 1970 to 1998, he worked on developing the regional chain’s Fresh Store as a leading store format in the nation,” and one to emulate at a time of retail upheaval, according to Dick Spezzano, former vice president of produce and floral at the Vons Company. The Fresh Store optimized a way to differentiate, adjust to demographic nuances, and compete against the Walmart onslaught and pricing wars that were shaking up national chains, struggling to get their bearings.
DiPiazza was known for his gumption in introducing consumers to exciting new produce varieties and products, and catapulting produce sales with clever merchandising, marketing, and promotional programs.
In fact, in a sign of the times, Safeway acquired Vons, and soon after Dominick’s in 1998. To capitalize on the economies of scale with its national store model, Safeway discontinued and morphed the Fresh Store concept under its own banner, to the chagrin of Chicago customers, and eventually reinstituted a lot of the original elements innovated by DiPiazza, according to Spezzano. “I’d see the innovative things he was doing with the Dominick’s Fresh Stores, and that’s how I would learn, visiting my friendly regional non-competitor to see what I could take back to Vons in California.”
DiPiazza designed an iconic supermarket with a European-style, open-market feel, that included salad bars, precut fruit programs, prepared foods, and in-store restaurants/cafes. It was celebrated for its produce quality, variety and depth, with all the fresh perishables adjacent under one roof. DiPiazza was known for his gumption in introducing consumers to exciting new produce varieties and products, and catapulting produce sales with clever merchandising, marketing, and promotional programs. That’s why Sun World’s proprietary varieties did so well with Dominick’s, because Bob recognized a good product, says Spezzano.
“Bob DiPiazza and Dick Spezzano were two of our real champions in the 1980’s, and at the time they were heading up produce operations for two really iconic regional retailers that have since become part of larger national organizations,” says David Marguleas, CEO, Sunworld International. “I used to do promotions called the Tastes of Sun World, and I’d put everything they grew with the ad because I thought they were such an innovative company,” says DiPiazza.
DiPiazza was one of the original test partners with Fresh Express to successfully launch bagged salads. He introduced 5-deck dairy-style cases that ran much cooler than typical produce cases and re-engineered produce cases to handle the product properly and maintain the cold chain, which was a critical factor for the rapid development of the packaged salad and precut fruit categories. DiPiazza also developed progressive marketing concepts, such as 10-cents-each produce promotions that drove huge consumption, and were adopted by many retailers across the United States, according to Spezzano. This introduced consumers to obscure items at that time, like kiwi, baby eggplant, poblano peppers, portabella mushrooms, lychee, tomatillos, and sunburst tangerines.
DiPiazzo came up with the “Buy One Give One” promotion where for every advertised item the customer purchased, Dominick’s gave the same item on behalf of the customer to the local food bank. This promotion raised over 10 million pounds of produce. “We sold so much product that the food bank said we can’t possibly use all this in one year,” says DiPiazza. “I think we sold 40 truckloads of 10-pound bags of russet potatoes, also onions and carrots… there was a variety, but every one of them experienced tremendous movement.”
DiPiazza moved to Bentonville, AR, in 1998 and moved the dial on the produce industry, when he was brought in as senior vice president of perishables for Sam’s Club, responsible for fresh meat, deli, bakery, produce floral, in-store cafes and refrigerated and frozen foods categories with a multi-billion-dollar sales budget. “Bob brought them along at Sam’s Club and increased their volume tremendously in their produce share of the total business too. That was a serious accomplishment,” says Spezzano.
“Bob was also greatly responsible for the development of the Walmart Global Procurement Program with offices in South and Central America, China, Europe and other locations furthering the global and international trading of fresh produce and floral,” says Spezzano.
“I was pretty vocal in saying, we can do this on our own and probably save 15 percent, and in an organization the size of Walmart, that’s not millions, that’s billions of dollars,” says DiPiazza. “We had to learn the import business and its myriad complexities. One of the big challenges was getting the platform of our purchasing systems to marry up with what we were doing domestically, involving a lot of internal IT work. Another obstacle was to get Walmart transportation involved in booking vessels and that was new to us. I think this was the start of what today we commonly refer to as the global economy. It’s really led to what I would call the global marketplace.”
DiPiazza’s third stage of his career channeled the supplier side as president of Sun Pacific. He increased national kiwi consumption five-fold by developing “Mighties,” the branded value-added, ready-to eat-kiwi program, according to Spezzano. He would work with the avocado ripening people throughout the U.S. to precondition the kiwis, and that was a big breakthrough. Now most of the kiwis are sold packaged where they used to be sold in bulk.
DiPiazza also eliminated tons of food waste by developing “Baby Cuties” as an avenue for small-sized mandarin oranges that were historically not marketed. He was instrumental in making Cuties a household name and one of the recognizable brands in the produce department, by securing enough new business each year to move the entire crop, which was growing exponentially, and gain mass distribution into Walmart, Sam’s Club, Costco, all the big chains and major regional chain operators across the country.
In keeping with the large and lasting impacts of his career, DiPiazza has regularly volunteered his time and talent to further the industry. His influence in driving important industry initiatives range from serving on the Standardized Generic PLU/UPC task force and FMI’s produce category management task force, to becoming co-chair for the Center for Produce Quality, the first industry initiative to improve produce food safety, and a founding board member of PBH, to his leadership roles at PMA, as a board member for over 10 years, and as PMA chairman.