OPN Connect: Vic---you’ve held a variety of different positions in retail over your career. How did you get started and what are some of the posts you’ve held?
I started working in this business when I was 16 years old, pushing carriages and shoveling out the incinerator at a Shop Rite store in North Jersey. I did this through high school and college, before I started at Wakefern Foods as a Procurement Management trainee. I was fortunate to also to be an Expeditor, Analyst, Buyer, and Category Manager during the nearly 22 years I was at Wakefern. In 2008, I moved over to Allegiance Retail Services/Foodtown Inc. first as Senior Category Manager, then as Director, and now as Senior Director of Produce and Floral. I’m also on the Board of Directors of the Eastern Produce Council, currently serving as President as well as Chairman of the NY Produce Show committee, a member of the SEPC, and I served on the PMA Fresh Summit Committee.
OPN Connect: How have you seen organic fresh produce grow over the past decade?
I guess the word EXPLODE would be the best one-word description. Organics went from a necessary evil in many stores to a vital ingredient in the determination whether a retailer will succeed or fail in our market. More customers are looking for and prefer products that are designated organic, natural as well as local, than any others. If you're good at those three things and can compete on the retail level, you will be successful.
Allegiance operates several different banners----from NYC’s legendary D’Agostino’s to Foodtown locations in upscale New Jersey neighborhoods------how do you differentiate what organic items will be carried in each store location?
Being a cooperative, we can suggest and show the benefits of supporting a strong program in organics to our members, but in the end it is up to them as to how much emphasis they put on it at the store level. Many of our members do an incredible job with organics, mostly by chain. For a few of our members, it’s one of their biggest priorities!
OPN Connect: What would you consider to be the biggest challenge in getting consumers to purchase more organic fresh produce?
I think the biggest challenge is the supply channel and the role of retail pricing. The items that most resemble their conventional counterparts, from a retail perspective, are also the ones that coincidentally are the largest volume items in our departments.
OPN Connect: What would you consider the top 4-5 bestselling organic fresh produce items in your stores?
First and foremost are the organic salads. After that berries (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries) lead the way in my stores. Close behind them you would find banana’s and avocados on a movement report. Then coming in behind those items would be your first-tier vegetables, the broccoli and grape tomato.
We have found that our organic salad business leads the market in growth and percentage of sales in our total Salad category and the department. This is a great indicator that we have an organic consumer in our stores, and they appreciate our aggressive retail pricing in this category. We use this category as the lead to pull these consumers in and see our other offerings in the department and the store. It’s worked pretty well for us!
OPN Connect: What would you consider to be the biggest consumer challenge in purchasing more organic produce?
Aside from retail pricing, the biggest challenge for most consumers is the presence of a true seasonality in most items. While in the conventional items we have just about made most items available 12 months out of the year, with organics true seasonality still exists in many items.
OPN Connect: Looking into your crystal ball, where do you see organic produce in five years?
Great question, I think the people that do organic growing projections and planning from the growers side would be able to give you a better answer on that. Organics can only grow as quickly as supply allows. I think the sky is the limit!