Originally printed in the April 2018 issue of Produce Business.
My father had a couple of mottos that he believed allowed him some ability to manage the demand for an item.
His favorite, “Move it and Sell it,” was a challenge requiring us to physically move a product from wherever it was on display to another location on the floor. Not difficult when everything is on pallets, but when I started in the business most of our product was stacked on the floor. The intention was to put the item in a more visible place; secretly hoping customers would assume the item just arrived. He employed another method to create the illusion of scarcity. The cue “Put a SOLD sign on it.” I saw this done any number of times, usually with Jersey tomatoes packed in baskets. Buyers thinking they had overlooked our tomatoes would ask him to cut the other orders and give some to them.
Recently, I noticed the acronym FOMO used in social media: Fear Of Missing Out. It was as true then as it is today.
Every industry develops its own lexicon — adages, proverbs, euphemisms, one-liners and catch phrases intended to streamline conversation, convey meaning and highlight important bits of information. The language is colorful, if not always grammatically correct. On the loading platforms of the old Philadelphia Regional Produce Market, I heard phrase after phrase designed to convey, or in some cases to obscure, nuances of meaning. Other examples of these maxims were intended to remind one of the basic tenets of survival in a supply-and-demand world.
The most common of these expressions deals with the everyday conversations that take place between buyers and sellers.
- An inquiry about an item’s flavor, “How does it eat?” would be answered with “like sugar,” whether the salesman had tasted it or not.
- A buyer noticing a carton of product was leaking might make a remark about possible decay, to which a salesman might be overheard responding, “Yeah there’s a little decay, but what’s good in there is good.”
- If a buyer asks, “Do they all look like this sample?” the salesman can only reply, “We don’t make samples. That’s original.”
- A savvy buyer I knew used this retort if a salesman over-described the expected shelf life of his product: “You know, you might fool me, but you can’t fool these flies.
Much good advice was boiled down into a few words of encouragement or coaching for young salesmen. Dealing with perishable product and growers that needed to ship prompted my father to often say, “Catch hell for selling.” It was his way of telling you that as a “salesman” you were in “it” and you were responsible for making pricing decisions, right or wrong. Often those decisions reflected sales prices based on product condition, market conditions or simply “getting picked off.”
Getting “picked off” would always bring up the question, “Did you walk the Street?” Walking the Street was something you were meant to do every morning to see what the competition was offering and to test your own ideas about market prices. Sometimes no matter what you did to maximize your prices and sell out, you still might not “clean up.” In those cases you would hear “Your first loss is your best!” This is the reminder that fresh produce often doesn’t appreciate in value in the short term and selling out today at whatever price you can get will be infinitely better than the price you may be offered tomorrow.
John “Sonny” Fiorella, son-in-law of our company’s founder, managed the office in the family business. He often shared these words of wisdom: “Pay the farmers fast, and you’ll always have a store full of stuff.” He was right, of course, and he religiously mailed checks every Friday to our farmers in New Jersey and Delaware and he would get a call on Monday if they didn’t find their check in Saturday’s mail.
A savvy buyer I knew used this retort if a salesman over-described the expected shelf life of his product: “You know, you might fool me, but you can’t fool these flies.
Uncle Sonny used to have lunch regularly with a group of senior Philadelphia businessmen. They sat at a table in a private room in the Old Original Bookbinders, a landmark restaurant in Philadelphia. My grandfather’s original location on The Dock Street Market was literally across the street from the restaurant, and Sonny had been lunching there for years. He often related the advice he heard at lunch. My favorite axiom was associated with a story about a business that fell into bankruptcy. “You can steal the profit, but not the cost.” Apparently that businessman was too greedy for his own good.
I often reflected on that sentence and considered the broader meaning it implies. In those days, our business was commission-based, and the “cost,” the proceeds from our sales after commission, were returned to the grower. I was taught to protect those returns even if it hurt us. After all, that grower was going back into the field and we would get another chance the next day to make a “good sale.” That was my father’s way of saying “Well done, you nailed it.”
John Vena is the owner of John Vena Inc., a family owned and operated produce business located in the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market. Founded in 1919, the company is a fourth generation family business bearing the name of John Vena’s grandfather.