With technological advances happening every day, it is not unusual to have meetings with management to discuss the latest technology and benefits to the operation. Management often touts technology as the way to streamline operations and to perform in a more efficient manner. They are totally convinced evolving technology will be both the savior of the business and the driving factor in the success of all departments within the store.
While there is a certain amount of truth to this, management often relies solely on technology to solve organizational challenges. This is particularly true in the perishable department, where technology is looked upon as the answer to having the very best perishable programs. This reliance on technology again proves management just doesn’t get it.
Society is preoccupied by advancing technology. Technology shows great promise in being able to advance human endeavors on every front, including the grocery business. It is natural to assume every advance in artificial intelligence, applied algorithms and robotics will be the one to provide answers to drive the success and value of our enterprise. However, to rely solely on technology as a method of advancing an enterprise’s success and profitability is to adopt a strategy without a complete plan to take the operation to the next level. While this may work in the grocery industry for some of the more static commodities, such as grocery, health/beauty and non-foods, it is dangerously shortsighted in the world of perishables, especially produce.
The desire to be on the cutting-edge of technology has a strong appeal in the industry. The most recent PMA convention devoted substantial programming content to technology, its future, and how it could conceivably shape the produce industry. At times, it seemed the content indicated technology was the only way to drive the produce business forward. This is a dangerous position to adopt, as it limits innovation and vision. We must always remember the produce industry is a part of the larger agricultural world, which is always evolving. We must always be aware of, and remain close to, the teaching of our agricultural heritage.
The produce industry is one of the last bastions of free enterprise. It is an industry where relationships and the integrity of those involved have always been the agents of change and growth. Without this, we are nothing more than computer-driven order-takers dependent on what technology and information tells us. This is not to say we should ignore technology and information; but, we should use it as a part of an overall strategy, utilizing all aspects of our business to drive desired results.
To rely solely on technology as a method of advancing an enterprise’s success and profitability is to adopt a strategy without a complete plan to take the operation to the next level.
The rapid advancement of technology and all its forms can be somewhat confusing and even frightening to many in the industry. The initial perception is the industry is in danger of becoming button pushers. Given this perception and concern, what can the produce industry do to meet this challenge and take advantage of the opportunities? The answer is simple and was put forward during one of the sessions at the PMA convention: use technology as a tool.
In the retail world, the use of new technologies — artificial intelligence, advanced algorithms and improved systems — could prove to be extremely valuable in assisting in the formulation of policy and solutions to challenges facing retail. However, this technology should not be looked upon as the sole solution. To be truly effective, it needs to be combined with less technical skills, such as personal intuition, and most importantly, experience in the produce industry. This is the key to using technology in applying solutions to the industry. There is no substitute for these human skills. Simply utilizing the mathematical equations and directions of technology to formulate an effective marketing strategy will result in a sterile, ineffective retail presentation. Retailers must utilize these tools with all the other information at their disposal and their own experiences to formulate the type of retail program that drives sales and entices customer purchase.
If we utilize this attitude toward technology, it can be a powerful ally in improving the produce operation from field to the consumer. It can improve operations at the retail and field levels to be more efficient and effective, as well as better shepherds of the land. It can be utilized for every segment of the supply chain and can greatly enhance our ability to communicate clearly and quickly between members of the industry. When combined with the unique industry marketplace and operational philosophy, we can embrace technology and use it as intended to help us find new and better ways to grow and distribute produce to customers throughout the world.
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 [email protected].