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Cornell University professors Kristen Park (far left) and Brad Rickard, Rod Hawkes, Ed McLaughlin and Bill Drake (far right) share their insight during the opening session.
Some of the produce industry’s newer entrants learned how dramatic industry changes can in uence them and shake up the produce business and their relationships with customers and suppliers.
During the Dec. 10, 2018, Foundational Excellence program, Cornell University professionals discussed how supply chain initiatives and changes, including auto- mated functions — as well as a radically different retail scene affected by online sales — are transforming the produce industry. Cornell’s Future-Leaders-In-Pro- duce Program is designed to  ll a gap in the produce industry’s training programs by helping workers with less than  ve years of experience jump-start their careers by increasing their competencies.
Produce must thrive in the increasingly online marketplace, advises Ed McLaughlin, a Cornell professor who discussed omni- channel retailing and produce. While groceries are at three percent — at the bottom of the list of U.S. consumer trans- actions made online — by 2025, the share of online grocery spending could reach 20 percent of all spending, representing $100 billion in sales, he says. Suppliers can either ignore the currently small online market, focus on current customers or join Amazon as a third-party seller. By comparison, the average supermarket sells 40,000 stock- keeping units. Amazon markets 550 million products.
As online sales continue to grow, the size of supermarket stores is declining,
primarily in the center store. Retailers are opening fewer stores, and those they open are smaller. Selling online requires more thought. “You need to think more care- fully about the quality of fresh produce and packaging,” says McLaughlin. Some E-com- merce retailers believe the distribution technology presages a shift away from bulk merchandising back to packaging. “We went from the shift 30 years ago,” he says. “We see the pendulum possibly swinging back to more and more packaging as pack- aging protects the product with weights, standards and merchandising ideas.”
In a panel discussion, Michael Armata, sales manager of E. Armata, Inc., a whole- saler on the New York Hunts Point Terminal Market, describes working in the produce industry as a “home feeling.” Armata joined the company immediately after college. “Going through sales, you learn how to navigate yourself,” he says. “You eventually get to the point where every day coming in and doing the regular thing isn’t enough. You always want to  nd new things to interest people, like new packaging.”
Dan Vena, sales manager at John Vena, Inc., on the Philadelphia Whole- sale Produce Market, entered the industry sweeping  oors, which gave him a perspec- tive dif cult to appreciate in other indus- tries. Working a year outside of industry after college provided another view to know there is life outside of the produce industry, he says. “At the market, it feels like it’s the whole world,” observes Vena. “That’s
why events like this are valuable. You can see how small your section is and how big the industry is. It’s very invigorating.”
Per-capita vegetable consumption plateaued in the early 2000s. The decades- long messaging on the need for people to eat more produce doesn’t appear to be working, says Kristen Park, a Cornell extension associate who discussed the role of fresh produce in the U.S. food system. Fresh fruits and vegetables maintain a smaller overall voice in the market value of agricultural products sold and in farm bill discussions. The segment accounts for 13.8 percent of supermarket department sales.
“Though it may not have as strong a voice at the production level, by the time it gets into the store, retailers understand the impor- tance and value of produce in a different way than the production system,” says Park.
Retailers are looking to older adults for labor. The senior group knows how to work, is on-time and possesses people skills important to the industry, says Rod Hawkes, a Cornell senior extension associate. That group also requires transportation needs and other physical needs and limitations. “The aging of the population has important implications for these issues and for the labor supply,” says Hawkes. “This popula- tion will be actively consuming products for a very long time. The industry is trying to respond and develop new products. There’s a lot of opportunity facing the industry to address the needs of this audience as we age into retirement and beyond.”
‘Some customers were squeamish. People were all up in arms be- cause they couldn’t get Romaine for salads, in prepared salads and sandwiches. People didn’t realize how important Romaine was.’ — John Mahr, store manager for Morton Williams in Jersey City, NJ

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