The Impact Of The Coronavirus On Produce Sales

Wholesale Market Paul Manfre

Originally printed in the March 2020 issue of Produce Business.

Because I am an optimist, let’s start with some good news… At the time of this writing, there have been 127,000 people affected worldwide, and 63,000 already have beat the virus. Although tragically 4,700 have died, the numbers indicate that you are far more likely to survive than die. So, eat your fruits and vegetables, wash your hands, practice social distancing and get into the sunshine to boost your morale and your immune system.

Now onto produce. As I predicted earlier on my podcasts, foodservice would be devasted and retail sales would be off the charts. Both predictions have most certainly materialized. I have been around many years in this business, and retail has not been like this since 1985. The next question will most likely be: When does it end — 1 day or 1 year from now? That is the $64,000 question.

Well, with no restaurants and people staying at home all day because most businesses are closed, what else is there to do but to cook and eat some immune-boosting fruits and vegetables. Please thank a farmer, trucker, retailer and wholesaler because they are working overtime to keep fresh produce in your local stores.

So I think on the demand side of the business, the demand will stay strong on the staple items. On the supply side, we have challenges. There would not have been enough product this time of year if there was normal demand, but with this off-the-charts demand, many orders go unfilled or are cut drastically.

Prices are rising significantly across the spectrum. I have customers who call and say, “Please load, please load.” I say everybody will get some, but not everyone will get all.

Another thing that will change in the advent of this outbreak is online sales. Now, produce sales are not at the same level of online grocery sales. Obviously, it’s easy to buy products such as canned items and Windex online. But consumers are only going to be confident buying your produce online when they’re confident about buying your produce in retail stores.

This is going to be a turning point in how we do business. The fact that a lot of people didn’t buy produce online previously won’t matter. They’re going to buy online now. I think older people are going to be afraid of going to the store. So we’re going to have a new demographic of online shoppers.

The coronavirus is really going to be the impetus for a seismic change and a turning point for the produce industry.

Produce is the hardest item to sell online, because people like to see and smell it, in real time. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That being said, I think the coronavirus is really going to be the impetus for a seismic change and a turning point for the produce industry. It’s going to evolve to online shopping, online sales and working at home.

Covid-19 is not only the rocket fuel for globalization — it’s also going to set online sales on fire. Clearly, we know we were already moving that way. This may very likely be the event that pushes it over the top.

You now have a great opportunity to increase produce sales and get them in line with your grocery sales.

I actually wrote to the chief executive of Walmart today and told him: “Here is your opportunity to beef up displays, get the merchandise looking great. Your prices are pretty much in line most of the time. This is your opportunity — an opportunity to shine. But, you have to dazzle consumers in the store first. That’s the only way to achieve maximum liftoff.”

And finally, while I’m not a big proponent of packaging, this might be the time to change that too. There’s a good chance consumers may not want other people touching their produce. So, maybe, most people will want to purchase produce that is packaged. Of course, the plastic waste becomes a problem but that’s a discussion for another day.

So, with well executed, in-store displays, the right pricing and appropriate packaging, it’s really going to make a big impact going forward.
So, eat your fruits and vegetables and encourage others to do the same. Because if you know anything about nutrition — produce helps your immune system and that seems to be what our bodies need the most.

Keep your head up. Make wise decisions and smart choices. The produce business is going to still be here when the coronavirus is gone. Hopefully, we’re likewise all going to be here long after the headlines fade. We’re going to get through this.

Sell it. Sell the story. Tell the truth about our items. It’s what consumers want and need.

Paul Manfre is general manager at Top Katz Brokerage LLC, located in The Bronx, NY. In his role, Manfre oversees purchasing, sales and contract negotiations. He is also a produce supply and demand specialist.