The Pivot

Originally printed in the April 2020 issue of Produce Business.

One of those things that got burned into my mind, probably around fifth grade, as I learned the game of basketball, was about the “pivot.”

Establish your pivot foot. Keep your pivot foot in place, and move around with the rest of your body as you decide what to do with the basketball. Pivot to find the best option – shoot, pass, dribble. And do something with the ball quickly before it’s too late and you’re stuck.

Worrying about my pivot foot is never on my mind, but amidst this global pandemic of COVID-19, the term “pivot” is something I am hearing about in our industry lexicon of the day with great frequency. And it is something we’ve been pondering deeply for what it means for our business – now, in a few months, next year.

With coronavirus impacting society, disrupting the supply chain, and challenging us and our normal pathways of doing business in dramatic ways, we are all forced to pivot both on a small scale and sometimes on a big scale to keep each other safe, the food moving and our businesses viable.

Produce wholesalers and distributors across the country are fretting over questions like these:

• We’re focused on foodservice… how do we sell to retailers or direct to consumer?

• We’re focused on retail… how do we scale-up and add capacity, yet still maintain social distance and safety?

• We’re focused on specialty and high-end products… how do we transition to products people want and need while they’re stuck at home and our economy is headed toward a possible recession?

• We’re focused on purchases created from sampling and creative in-store merchandising… how do we create those impulse sales with less labor in the store, less shopping trips from shoppers, and more demand online or for contactless options?

• We’re used to relying on face-to-face interaction and in person contact to sell our product… how do we do that activity effectively via videoconference, phone, and in the digital world?

• We’re used to relying on hands-on labor to deliver customized service experiences and huge variety… how do we become more efficient and simplified?

How are all these transitions, or “pivots,” even possible without losing our way, or worse, getting stuck before it’s too late to make a change in the first place?

We are all forced to pivot both on a small scale and sometimes on a big scale to keep each other safe, the food moving and our businesses viable.

You know the thing about the pivot is that you must have a solid spot planted to pivot from. You’re not running away from what you’re doing; you’re just adjusting the trajectory from that same established pivot point.

So, what is it that’s keeping you grounded and firmly planted in the first place? Is it your team’s talent? Is it your core purpose and values? Is it your best customer and vendor partners? Is it your operational capabilities? Is it something proprietary? Is it your location/equipment/assets?

It’s likely some sort of combination. Once you define that established spot to pivot from, an open mind will allow you to quickly assess the best options. On the other hand, without defining the established spot to start pivoting from, the risk of change feels even higher, and getting clarity and alignment from the rest of your organization to even attempt change feels almost impossible.

Small pivots in our business are easier to tackle. Go for it! Take that new idea quickly to a testable product/service, then introduce it to the marketplace in a small way so you can fail fast and fail cheap. Those early lessons and customer feedback can help determine if it is worthy of further time and investment.

We’ve done a few of these smaller pivots in our own business during March and April of 2020 at Four Seasons Produce, including launching a consumer box program packed at our facility. But we didn’t start it to sell to the public; the focus was the needs of our labor-strapped, social-distancing-challenged independent retailer and food co-op customers who, all of a sudden, were buying less produce because they had customer-count limits and lower staff attendance. A pre-packed box was something our retailers could offer for curbside pickup via email blast or online ordering.

Our merchandisers, who had been spending their days in the produce departments of retailers in Washington DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York City, developed the consumer box program from their homes using the video, chat, and the file-sharing collaboration tool, Microsoft TEAMs. By collecting real world feedback on what was working for stores and what was failing, they were able to adjust the product offering and sell the plan with speed.

Bigger pivots are much trickier – the high-stakes deal or project, the partnership or merger that would never have been considered before, the painful cuts to remain fiscally sound. That’s when it is most important to make sure you know where your established spot to pivot from is.

Here’s wishing you all in the industry successful pivots!

Jonathan Steffy is the Vice President & General Manager at Four Seasons Produce, Inc. in Ephrata, PA, a family-owned wholesale distributor that sells organic, conventional and local fresh produce along with other fresh foods to independent retailers, natural food stores, co-ops, and other buyers in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.