Make It Personal

Don Harris - Retail Perspective

Originally printed in the August 2021 issue of Produce Business.

One of the best things about the produce industry year after year was the ability to be able to conduct multimillion dollar business with a simple handshake. This was due to the mutual respect between the buyers and sellers and the faith and trust in the honor of each party to follow through without a formal contract.

This was one area that was never understood by upper management as they were steeped in the tradition of the absolutes of data and analysis fostered by their background in the world of consumer products and grocery. These personal relationships had always been the major aspect of the produce industry that made it unique in terms of the retail food business. However, this trait of doing business within the produce world recently has begun to lose its influence. Because of this, upper management seems to be enjoying the change and the fact that Produce is conforming more and more to the consumer products way of doing things. As usual, upper management “just doesn’t get it!”

This shift in importance began with the large-scale influx of personnel from outside of the industry and its unique experience. Many of the newer members of the industry have consumer products background, and as we have moved farther into the “informational” age this experience and the use of data analysis and “number-crunching” has pushed the industry toward this new situation.

Of course, this is not to say that these are not good people coming into the industry, but it does illustrate the fact that in most cases they have not taken the time to understand the industry and learn about its historic strengths and personal nature. Previously it was a high priority for new individuals entering the produce industry to learn as much as possible about how the industry traditionally has worked and gain insight into its operational success from veteran members of the industry. Instead of following this procedure, this new faction has plow forward working to remake the operational aspect of the industry into one that resembles and conforms to a consumer products strategy.

Relationships between buyers and sellers now are predominantly highlighted by data analysis reports, category management strategies, algorithms, e-mails, faxes, zoom conferences and other impersonal contact. We seem to be losing the ability to relate to each other on a more personal level during our business contacts.

It was once important to talk about and understand the nature of your partners’ business and their challenges. Establishing a personal relationship with your business partner provided valuable insight and information on what would be the expectations of your business relationship. Establishing this type of personal relationship and, if you will, friendship with your partners in the industry would allow for a far more open discussion of the issues and development of strategic plans and strategies.

Smart produce retailers will continue to cultivate personal relationships with all their business partners.

Smart produce retailers will continue to cultivate personal relationships with all their business partners.

This method of business procedure has served the industry well over the years and has helped to develop the trust, faith, and cooperation across the industry. The most successful retailers have always used these types of relationships to enhance their own operations, encourage new products, and initiate innovative and cooperative ventures that would move the industry forward. The additional fact that this type of personal business relationship makes for a far more rewarding and enjoyable working relationship. This is certainly one most important traditional aspects of the industry that we must be aware of and preserve to avoid losing touch with our own history and success.

Some people may think this is old-fashioned thinking and that the industry should move on to embrace this technology-driven culture. While this may be the “trending” way to think, it will take us away from everything that has historically made this the most unique, successful, and dynamic segment of the food industry. To enslave ourselves to this type of “bean counters” type of strategy is to set us on a road to fail.

Reducing business meetings and important decisions to merely a discussion of charts, graphs, and pages of category management information will result in an antiseptic, impersonal result. In a world that is becoming more impersonal and void of human contact, losing the personal relationship aspect of our industry is paramount to losing our identity and the reason and culture that makes this a dynamic, ever-changing and satisfying workplace.

Smart produce retailers will continue to cultivate personal relationships with all their business partners. They will visit face-to-face with their partners, in their own offices or at the partners’ location, and they will personally discuss all aspects of their business relations and their shared personal experiences. These encounters should also include opportunities to learn more about each other’s operation and what can be done to help one another be more effective in their business relationship.

While “data and numbers” will always play a role in these discussions and decisions, they should only be a part of the decision-making progress and should always rely on what offers the best value for both operations and the consumer. To not maintain the vital importance of initiating and developing personal relationships in the operation of the produce industry will be tantamount to the first step in its decline.

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