Retail Perspective: Preparing For The ‘New’ Normal

Don Harris - Retail Perspective

As we face the new world created by the COVID-19 pandemic, we must resort to an unconventional approach to our operations. We all had to adjust and redefine everything we do to confront and overcome the challenges and roadblocks we have faced during the past few months. As produce retailers, we must continue to utilize all assets at our disposal to develop strategies and plans that will deal with our present situation and prepare us for what comes after the pandemic.

Contemporary management theory is that we should be utilizing our time to help maintain momentum of sales that have been generated during this crisis period and continue the expansion of our operation. But the innovative produce retailer should be looking beyond the present situation to its causes and effects and what will be the lingering effects in the future. In most cases, upper management is generally content to ride out the wave of the present momentum and see what happens. Unfortunately, in our new marketplace atmosphere, this only goes to show that once again “they just don’t get it!”

Previously, we have encouraged the progressive retailer to take a look at what is happening in his operation, what can be learned from the present situation and how to take advantage of any opportunities. But the “new” normal requires far greater focus and diligence in performing deeper dives of discovery on what are the true effects and direction the pandemic has inflicted upon our operations.

During the past few months, there have been many different signals that have shown us the opportunities and the realities of the “new” normal in the produce industry. While some of the signals are familiar, such as the growth in sales and the movement by consumers to consume more of their food at home, there have been other more subtle signals that we should be well aware of and should take into account when evaluating and planning for the future. When we move out of the shadow of the pandemic and into what would become our reimagined reality, how well we accomplish this task will be critical in determining the ongoing success and opportunity that will be available for our enterprise.

The “new” normal requires far greater focus and diligence in performing deeper dives of discovery on what are the true effects and direction the pandemic has inflicted upon our operations.

As a point of beginning, while we know that we have enjoyed substantial increased sales during the pandemic, the majority of it was caused by the shutdown of the foodservice sector and the ability of the consumer to frequent restaurants in other sources of food outside the home. Some questions we should ask ourselves:

• What are the different aspects of these increased sales?

• Have you examined your sales to determine what individual factors are making up the sales increase?

• Just how much of the sales increase has been generated in-store, and how much has been generated by the delivery/pickup segment of your business?

• Do you really know how much of your business was generated by the delivery/pickup segment prior to the onset of the pandemic in order to determine the effect on your new sales?

• What are the items that are selling best in the delivery/pickup segment versus the in-store results?

All of this analysis should give you some revealing data that you can utilize to target areas of opportunity and ways to enhance both in-store and delivery/pickup sales.

By focusing on this critical area of sales in the “new” normal in this manner, you can determine if you have the proper selection of products for your in-store presentation as well as the offerings for delivery/pickup. For example, are you offering too much in the way of variety for consumers to select their items for delivery/pickup? Should you be offering a simpler and more sales-sensitive strategy in your offering for sales/pickup versus the full-scale presentation at store level? Does your analysis indicate the direction of the delivery/pickup section of your business following the pandemic? Will it continue at the same rate? Or will it decline or perhaps increase? Can your operation be structured so that it can both enjoy increases as we move farther and farther into the “new” normal of the produce world? Most importantly, what will be the effect on consumers’ behavior and their purchase behavior as we move into a period of relaxing restrictions and an ending of the pandemic?

All of these questions and analysis are not guaranteed to predict the future. But without this type of action and the resulting plans and strategies that can be developed from it, we will be relegated to being totally reactive to what happens within our marketplace and will be relegated to “putting out fires” as problems and challenges emerge. The good produce retailer cannot allow this to happen. As a wise man once said, “When confronted with the challenges of predicting the future, the worst thing one can do is nothing.” Let’s make sure that we do not fall prey to this affliction.

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

Originally printed in the February 2021 issue of Produce Business.