Wholesalers Step Up In-Store Support

Broadening services boosts wholesaler competitiveness. For example, a majority of traditional wholesalers have added merchandising services to their offering within the last seven years. The independent retailer featured in this photo received set help from merchandisers at Procacci Brothers Sales Corporation in Philadelphia, PA.

Increasing competition and challenging labor conditions make wholesalers an essential asset to their retail customers.

Originally printed in the March 2024 issue of Produce Business.

Customer service has long been an important part of the wholesale business. Today, that service expands beyond selling and delivering produce.

“As wholesalers, we become a valuable part of our customers’ buying process, providing more than just product,” says Dominic Riggio, president of Riggio Distribution in Detroit, MI.

Wholesalers can make or break retailers, asserts Jim Sullivan, produce merchandiser at Yokes Fresh Markets in Spokane, WA, with 19 stores. “If you don’t have a good wholesaler offering good support, it makes your job much tougher,” he says.

Adapting service and merchandising support is integral to a wholesaler’s value to customers. Most importantly, wholesalers can help retailers capture opportunities and navigate challenges.

Broadening wholesale services boosts competitiveness. “With the consolidation of the produce business and fewer houses, you have to become more adept and offer more customer services,” says Joel Fierman, president of Fierman Produce in Bronx, NY.

According to Dan Vena, director of sales and marketing at John Vena Inc. (JVI) in Philadelphia, PA, customers and shippers started asking for more than just produce over 10 years ago.

“Around that time, we built ripening rooms in partnership with a major Hass avocado grower,” he says. “We signed a contract to pack meal kits for what is now one of the biggest meal kit producers in the country. We also moved to a new facility and incorporated a dedicated production facility to allow further growth in packing work. Since that time, we’ve only seen those areas of our business become more important. Now, they’re non-negotiable.”


Adapting service and merchandising support is integral to a wholesaler’s value to customers. “With solid and consistent customer service, wholesalers can help retailers capture opportunities and navigate challenges,” says Jonathan Steffy, vice president and general manager at Four Seasons Produce in Ephrata, PA.

“Merchandising services support retail operations in assortment choices, display building, resets, staff training, driving sales and avoiding shrink,” Steffy explains. “These aspects have evolved with shifts in independent retailer niches, new technologies, changes in the workforce, and the explosion of value-added and convenience produce items.”

The customer service area constantly evolves, because customer wants and needs directly reflect consumer wants and needs, which change all the time, explains Gabriela D’Arrigo, vice president of marketing and communications at D’Arrigo New York in Bronx, NY. “Our ability to constantly change with customer needs is key,” she says.

Wholesalers offer a customized suite of services tailored to individual customers, states Gary J. Campisi, president of Campisi Produce Consulting, in Rogers, AR, who also serves as a ripening trainer for Thermal Tech in Blythewood, SC. “These services include in-store merchandising, advertising, sales support and ripening services,” he says.

Andrew Scott, vice president of business development and marketing at Nickey Gregory Company in Atlanta, GA, points out how retailers need a nearby “wholesaler friend” for services. “Wholesalers provide invaluable support including repacking, short buys, fresh cut/processing, logistics, merchandisers and produce manager training,” he says.

Wholesaler time, experience and dedication can go beyond the scope of what one might expect, relates Jim Hickey, senior buyer at Redner’s Fresh Markets in Reading, PA, operating 44 stores. “Participation in providing items to run in our ads four weeks out to switching up for ‘something different’ every week of the year has many of our vendors actively involved with growing our business,” he says.


A crucial part of the merchandising equation is the ability to use wholesaler expertise. “There’s a lot of great retail talent out there, but less experience,” says Rick Feighery, vice president of sales for Procacci Brothers Sales Corporation in Philadelphia, PA. “Experience is important to making decisions about having the right produce on the shelf, right quality, right packaging.”

The partnership between wholesale and retail is important for the retailer to utilize the wholesaler’s product knowledge, adds Jordan Grainger, vice president of sales and business development at Ben B. Schwartz & Sons in Detroit, MI. “The communication between retailer and wholesaler is an important factor in determining market trends and consumer habits.”

Brian Gibbons, produce director at Highland Park Market in Farmington, CT, with three stores, explains one way he utilizes wholesalers is by attending food shows with them to look for new items. “For example, Airflow might be exhibiting at the New York Produce Show, so I can go with my vendor and find some new shelving that might help merchandise the department better,” he says.

Merchandising expertise can make or break a sales relationship.

“There was a supplier we used for a while, but the merchandising person ended up being terrible,” says Yoke’s Sullivan. “I decided not to use them as much because it wasn’t really a help. We get the most from wholesalers who have experienced people coming in and doing the job right. They’re not coming in just to sell more product, they’re coming in to actually help.”

Store departments benefit from knowledge at the buy level. “For one retail chain, we support a weekly specialty program where store-level buyers have access to spot buy a range of seasonal items we select,” says JVI’s Vena. “It works well for them because we select items at their peak for quality and value, and buyers can choose what works for their individual store.”

Stores can also tap into insights emerging from data via wholesalers. “We can provide trend data across our customer base to help retailers make decisions,” says Four Season’s Steffy.


Wholesaler expertise naturally flows to in-store assistance. “When talking about merchandising, some people view it as just setting up a shelf, but there’s a lot more to it,” says Stefanie Katzman, executive vice president at S. Katzman Produce in Bronx, NY. “Information is the base — knowing what products to put on display and when, and what products taste good at what time of year. We want our stores to have the best quality and flavor, so we help them plan what to have and when.”

Wholesalers can provide invaluable support, such as repacking, short buys, fresh-cut or other processing, logistics, merchandising, and produce manager training. They’re another set of hands in the store, as well as a fount of much-needed information. Pictured, Robert Katzman and Vladimir Gonzalez from S. Katzman Produce visit with customer Victor Felipe from America Supermarket in Elizabeth, NJ.

A majority of traditional wholesalers have added merchandising services to their offerings within the last seven years.

“Many of our independents need the support in merchandising to compete with larger national retailers,” says D’Arrigo. “We help customers revamp to get the pull-through at the customer level. We can come in quarterly or once a year for a refresh, and we help them with ads and promoting seasonal items.”

Four Seasons Produce values integrated partnerships with customers, and merchandising is often a significant part of this, says Steffy. That includes ad writing, assortment and plan-o-gram advice, seasonality recommendations, how-to content, staff training, troubleshooting, and in-store connections.

“On top of those activities, our professionals lead or support seasonal resets, promotions and display contests, display builds, special events, and new product introductions as major hands-on drivers of sales and margin,” Steffy adds.

Merchandisers from Indianapolis Fruit in Indianapolis, IN, are in the store helping put together displays, work out pricing, and provide other needed services, according to Tony Mitchell, chief revenue officer.

“Our role varies by retailer,” he says. “Some just want us to provide information on opportunities or displays that make sense. Others need us to come in and be a pair of hands.”


Stores use wholesale merchandising services to help with store re-sets, major promotions or other onerous display tasks.

“Our wholesalers provide additional help for special events, such as a big apple promotion, remodels or grand openings,” says Yokes’ Sullivan. “For example, we just put in new tables at one of our stores and the wholesaler sent its merchandiser, plus someone from the sales team, to help. We’re under tight working conditions and it helps us tremendously to have that extra help.”

“We get the most from wholesalers who have experienced people coming in and doing the job right. They’re not coming in just to sell more product, they’re coming in to actually help.”

— Jim Sullivan, Yokes Fresh Markets, Spokane, WA

D’Arrigo New York can provide support to totally reset a department overnight. “Our team takes out all the produce, cleans out the entire department and resets it,” says D’Arrigo. “We have a fresh delivery in their cooler and use it to reset the entire department. We prep for weeks before — going to the store, observing, and looking at displays and equipment. We do the reset with store staff to show them where we’re putting items and why. We’ve had stores that, within two days of a reset, saw a 40% increase in sales.”

Yokes recently remodeled one of its Montana stores. “Our wholesaler sent a merchandiser from Spokane as well as Montana to help,” says Blaine Eckley, produce specialist. “It came out very nice.”

The chain also just did a major Litehouse category reset in one store. “Wholesaler merchandisers helped us set up the new 8-foot section,” says Sullivan. “We doubled the size of the set. It’s pretty amazing.”

Highland Park uses merchandising teams if doing a big remodel or opening a new store. “You definitely pick up ideas from different wholesalers who have worked in multiple supermarkets,” says Gibbons.

Procacci’s merchandising teams serve the East Coast, as well as other areas. “Merchandising includes everything from helping with product placement and helping produce managers do the day-to-day duties, to touching base about problems and helping with solutions, doing store resets, writing ads, and helping with margin gross,” says Feighery.


As stores feel the crunch of the labor market, wholesale merchandisers provide vital labor support. “Stores are really under pressure,” says Mitchell of Indianapolis Fruit. “It’s not sexy to be a produce manager anymore. When I grew up, it was cool, but now it’s really challenging, and labor has a lot to do with it. Outside merchandising staff are critical support for a produce manager.”

Everybody is short-staffed, agrees Feighery. “There has been a draw-down of help at store level in produce because wages have gone up and something has to give,” he says. “So, boots-on-the-ground have become essential. We offer support to help store personnel work more efficiently and effectively.”

Yokes values wholesale merchandising help. “Especially with labor issues, it really helps when we’re short-handed or doing resets or remodels,” says Eckley. “Our wholesalers are really good about sending a body and helping us out.”

Another aspect of labor support is wholesaler-provided training. “A lot of stores don’t have the HR personnel and time to spend training,” says Mitchell. “Our merchandisers provide that training and knowledge to help produce personnel in the store.”

Four Seasons’ merchandising successes in recent years have included show and tell events for store groups. “One location’s produce department is reset to grand opening status, then produce staff and store managers from all locations meet at that store to talk through the whats, whys, and hows of that whole department setup, so they can take the learnings back to their department,” says Steffy.


Successful merchandising starts with reliable supply information. “Understanding varieties of product, weather cycles, seeing a gap in product coming along, issues with quality, knowing when to minimize inventory or stock up are all crucial issues in our customers’ decision-making process,” says Filindo Colace, vice president at Ryeco in Philadelphia, PA.

Talking to wholesalers almost daily gives Gibbons of Highland Park valuable insights. “You can find out availability issues caused by weather, or items that are very promotable both with quality and price,” he says.

A wholesaler provides many things to customers, explains Riggio. “Information on markets, quality, variety, and availability are just a few things we stay on top of and communicate to our customers,” he says. “We provide value beyond the buy-sell transaction so our customers can make informed decisions, ultimately leading to a successful produce department.”

Grainger of Ben B. Schwartz points to the company’s team of procurement professionals. “They have a deep understanding of the markets and growing regions,” he says.

Moving knowledge up and down the supply chain is just as important as product, agrees Katzman of S. Katzman. “We speak with multiple suppliers in different regions to get an understanding of the current situation,” she says. “We then pass that information on to our customers so they can adjust sample size and pricing accordingly.”

Wholesalers also assist stores with point-of-sale (POS) and promotional items from shippers. “We help connect our suppliers and customers with POS, including cardboard displays, signage and marketing materials,” says Katzman.

D’Arrigo New York’s staff obtains POS materials for customers. “The shippers will send it on the truck and we put it in our customers’ stores,” says D’Arrigo. “We also suggest partnering with suppliers if they have a new product we think will work well in a certain store. We work with them and the store to highlight the product and help with in-store sampling.”

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Wholesalers Add Value With Product Services

Value-added products — fresh-cut, private label and custom packs — are increasingly part of the wholesaler’s expanding mix.

“Value-added has been, and continues to be, very important to customers, for both independent and national retailers,” says Dominic Riggio, president of Riggio Distribution in Detroit, MI.

Bigger stores have pre-cut operations in-store, but many smaller retailers don’t have that ability, explains Stefanie Katzman, executive vice president at S. Katzman Produce in Bronx, NY. “Those who don’t have the ability turn to their wholesaler for a solution.”

Indianapolis Fruit in Indianapolis, IN, operates its own fresh-cut facility, Garden Cut. “Fresh cut and convenience continues to grow,” says Tony Mitchell, chief revenue officer. “But, a lot of independents don’t have the time, labor or food safety protocols to cut product in the back room. So, we bring it to them.”

Value-added products are increasingly part of the wholesaler’s expanding mix.

Nickey Gregory Company in Atlanta, GA, has been processing fruits and vegetables since 2018 under its fresh-cut division, Family Fresh Foods. “We sell our items to foodservice, schools, home meal replacement concepts and healthcare,” says Andrew Scott, vice president business development and marketing.

Private label and custom packs represent additional service for stores. “Being able to give independent retailers the ability to have private label or branded product is crucial to helping them compete,” says Filindo Colace, vice president at Ryeco in Philadelphia, PA.

Fierman Produce in Bronx, NY, offers packing services to customers via its two facilities. “We rework packages so our customers always get top quality,” says Joel Fierman, president.

Ripening has become another valuable service. “Retailers should improve ripening programs by offering more ripe and ready-to-eat produce commodities such as bananas, avocados, pears and mangos,” says Gary J. Campisi, president of Arkansas-based Campisi Produce Consulting and ripening trainer for Thermal Tech in Blythewood, SC.