Everyone in the produce industry is accustomed to expecting the unexpected on any given day. But the unexpected is now the ‘new norm’, so being informed and flexible is vital for survival.
Product availability, quality, season and price are increasingly unpredictable. I long for the days when those were the primary variables. During the past two years, virtually every aspect of operations has been like the distorted mirrors in a carnival funhouse. And equally frightening.
From experience, you know your customers and their needs like you know the back of your hand, right? You know approximately what their pull will be each season, each day of the week, right?
Guess again. Foodservice and retail have transitioned to home delivery, and prices and seasons are no longer predictable. A customer that previously took two loads of an item will now sometimes take three loads one week and one another, cancelling and adding on at the last minute. They can no longer predict their own needs. Constant fluctuations of dining rules, vaccination mandates, government food assistance, etc., create ‘new norms’ of variables for our customers.
No problem, just bring in less product and get it as and when you need it, right?
Guess again. We on the front line do not need to read the headlines to know the issues with transportation. The lifeline of our industry is transportation. And due to the perishable nature of the product, we don’t have the ability to have the product sit around while we search for an available broker or carrier that meets the insurance and vetting requirements at a reasonable price (as that term changes daily) and will be reliable. To adapt to these changes, I am consolidating my orders so the truck has fewer stops. I have also adjusted my planning schedule to figure lead times at four days instead of the previous two days standard.
Need to pick up a container at the port? Well, plan ahead to secure a truck based upon the shipping company’s ETA, right?
Guess again. This fruit import season, the shipping lines could not give an expected date of arrival. Each week the expected date was like a moving dot that kept going farther and farther away. In turn, I couldn’t plan promotions and, instead of perfectly timed shipments that came in each week like previous years, I had the majority of loads arrive clustered together. At the end of the day, I was just happy to get them! Additionally, we had to get creative in sending products to various ports across the West Coast to avoid the increasingly congested Port of Los Angeles.
So, we get the product when we can and ‘work it’ in the event the quality has suffered due to delays, right?
Guess again. Acquiring and retaining employees, from the custodial staff to the commodities managers, is like walking a tightrope and, under the best of circumstances, increases costs dramatically. While all the trends point to remote work, wholesale work needs to be in person. An unintended consequence is that the labor shortage promotes the use of robots and drones in the industry. We are looking to technology more and more as ways to streamline our operations, and the cost/benefit analysis keeps tipping in favor of automation.
We can all plan our buying based upon commodity charts indicating seasons for each type of product, right?
Guess again. Flooding, heat waves and droughts — oh my! It seems like no region is safe from this “once in a 100-year” type of condition. Tropical storms have been sweeping through Mexico and Central America bringing flooding conditions. California, Europe and Chile have been hit by unseasonal heat waves, droughts, freezes… all resulting in longer and more dramatic gaps in seasons between growing regions. Often the results of these occurrences aren’t felt until the season is in full swing and there are “adjustments” to the predicted size of the crop.
So, all of this uncertainty destroys the relationship we have with our vendors, customers, employees, and industry partners, right?
Wrong. Guess again!!!! The only thing that remains consistent is that this industry is about relationships. The human factor again is what makes us strong, flexible, successful and, yes, fun and exciting.
Our company participated as first-time exhibitors at The New York Produce Show in December, and we could not have been more thrilled to see everyone as we refreshed our long term relationships and built new ones in person. We had two participants in the Foundational Excellence Program. Through the Global Trade Symposium, we were able to further discuss some of the supply chain challenges and potential work-arounds. Socializing for the first time in two years, we made new friends, found new products to handle, and enjoyed the hustle-and-bustle noise and activity of the group.
Life on the other side of the pandemic has its operational challenges, but we can now re-engage with the part we all hold most dear — spending time with each other.
Carole Shandler is the president of Shapiro-Gilman-Shandler Co., a fifth-generation produce wholesaler in downtown Los Angeles, adjacent to the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market. The company was founded in 1907.