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Brix testing of yellow plums
Brix testing of yellow plums

Nothing compares to visiting a vineyard, pulling off a grape and savouring the sun-drenched fruit. If you’re a liaison between growers and a retailer employer, that’s a perk of a demanding job. That’s the moment when it all becomes real.


A number of retailers have invested in personnel to visit growing regions throughout the season. Sobeys has supplier development leads. At Loblaw, they are called vendor development managers.  At the core of the position is that they are the link between primary producers and the merchandisers in the corporate office. With centralized procurement, it is challenging for category managers to get out and see producers across the country. So these liaisons are essentially the retailers’ eyes and ears in each production area.


It is positive for both growers and retailers to have personal interaction in the field where there’s a first-hand understanding of what is happening. Too much rain? Droughty conditions? Pest pressure? As a grower, you can send emails, photos and even videos, but there is nothing better than actually standing in the field or the packing shed to understand how environmental conditions are affecting sizing and quality.


Be proactive with these liaison people and set up as many visits to your farm as possible through the season. They are on the road a lot, so try to understand when they will be close to you and make yourself available. These folks are tasked with sharing the information with the merchandisers, so they can keep the right amount of product flowing when it is required.


Retailers want more up-to-the minute forecasts and the people visiting your farm must understand why growers might have more or less produce than forecasted.


I recall taking a Loblaw vendor development manager to a field of onions when Stemphylium blight was relatively new. He could not believe the devastation. It is one thing to say it in an email and it is another to stand in the field.


Many positives to people in the fields


Obviously standing in the field or orchard or vineyard is the biggest positive but there are many others to consider. Many growers I have talked to believe this liaison role puts someone ‘on their side’ to ensure the people in the office do know what is happening out in the field.


Another benefit is these field people know what retailers are looking for and they can see possibilities you might miss. New opportunities might be in varieties, packaging or other initiatives that could improve sales in their stores. Growers do not always know the direction a retailer is going so these liaisons can streamline the process.


Often, producers perceive that their customers do not appreciate everything they are going through to get the crop planted, harvested and packed. When these people visit your operation, they can see all the different steps to when a product leaves the farm gate.


If you have introduced new forms of pest management or irrigation to combat drought, then show them. These experiences will improve your relationship because the message back to the office is more detailed and nuanced. The liaison will explain what you’re going through and what efforts or solutions are in place.


If you are developing new opportunities such as variety trials or production processes, keep them aware of the progress. They will probably share this news with the category team. It’s a chance to get traction with the new products or processes you are working on.


Vendor development roles are a big asset to growers outside the geography where merchandisers are working. The further away your farm is from the office, the more these people can help.


Other considerations


Growers should understand that with these liaison people travelling more and comparing notes, more intelligence will be gathered on what you might be working on for another retailer. Clearly, these projects are between you and your customer, but you should decide in advance how much you share.

Every retailer is focused on efficiency, so adding the costs of field travel increases operational costs which must be paid for with the margin on products at retail. For every grower, a field visit from a retailer representative is an opportunity to build trust.


And what is trust? The Harvard Business Review says that trust has three core drivers: authenticity, logic and empathy. People tend to trust you when they believe they are interacting with the real you (authenticity), when they have faith in your judgment and competence (logic) and when they feel that you care about them (empathy).



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Submitted by Peter Chapman on 5 September 2023