The weekly meeting following the PMA convention usually results in a question from upper management about what was seen at the show — especially any new items or trends. This is a normal occurrence, and reasoning centers on management’s concerns about keeping up with competitors.
While these concerns are valid, they sometimes miss the point or the true meaning of observations obtained during the PMA convention. Upper management is often nervous about this information, because once again, “they just don’t get it!”
I’ve been attending PMA conventions since the mid-80s, and I found this observation to be correct: the conversations and the observations on the show floor and around the convention provide the most insight on what’s happening in the industry.
There is often an underlying vibe of activity and direction that goes unnoticed to many attendees who are only concerned with their private agendas and purpose for attending.
The PMA convention is unique in the fact that it goes far beyond displaying new products and capabilities of the vendors. It demonstrates, sometimes vaguely, the true direction of the industry. While networking with your peers and having access to customers are key attractions and benefits of the convention, experienced produce attendees find there is much more than this available to learn by observation at the convention. By observing and absorbing the environment within the hall many intuitive insights are available.
The truly enlightened retailer not only observes new products and services, but also “feels” the underlying pulse of the industry. In the case of the most recent convention, the casual observer would note it was an extremely busy show floor and there was a considerable amount of frenetic activity between buyers and sellers.
However, the more experienced observer would take in two elements of note: first, the tremendous amount of international presence as well as state pavilions promoting produce; second, the lack of large volume displays of fresh produce.
The first observation is the obvious one because the size of PMA’s Fresh Summit has grown to such a scope to be nearly overwhelming in its size and complexity — thus reflecting the state of the industry.
The conversations and the observations on . the show floor and around the convention provide the most insight on what’s happening in the industry.
The appearance and expansion of the international and state pavilions bears witness to the efforts of these entities to provide information to the industry about the services and products they provide. This reflects the growing interest of the consumer in local products and the interest in new forms of cooking using more exotic and imported ingredients. This is indeed an important aspect all retailers should be aware of and take this information to formulate strategies in their organizations to capitalize on these areas.
In terms of the lack of displays of fresh produce, the implications are far more ominous. Over the past few conventions, the amount of fresh produce on display has been declining to the point that at this year show, there was far less sensory input from fresh produce. That is to say, you could not smell the enticing aroma of fresh produce in the hall.
This reflects the industry’s movement toward pre-processed, packaged delivery of produce to the consumer in order to make the consumption of produce more convenient. This is where the direction of the industry is concerning as it seems to be taking the direction toward a more “consumer products” type of approach. In this manner, the industry seems to be losing its focus on what enabled it to reach the success that it currently enjoys.
In contrast to the relative lack of fresh produce at PMA, one characteristic shared by the most successful retailers is the continued promotion of large store displays highlighting fresh produce in bulk form. The message delivered to the consumer of an abundant supply of high quality, healthful fruits and vegetables is still the most powerful promotional strategy available to the industry. The successful retailers capitalize on this display by feeding the consumers’ desires for freshness, quality and nutrition benefits. This simply cannot be conveyed by processed, packaged produce.
While I might be accused of being old-fashioned, it seems the industry is edging closer to abandoning the very concept that allowed it to become foremost in the consumer mind. The industry can continue to grow, prosper and utilize new trends in local and international produce, but it should remain true to the customers’ perception of high-quality abundance, fresh-from-the-farm produce to feed their families and provide the nutrition we all need.
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 and is director of produce for the Chicago-based food charity organization, Feeding America. Comments can be directed to editor@