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In the Trenches: How do produce directors think?

A sales rep placed several tomatoes on a meeting room table and introduced them to the produce director. The rep handed out a folder full of sell sheets and continued with the presentation.

After listening to a lengthy pitch, the produce director sat in silence for a few minutes then unexpectedly said, “Quick, what am I thinking?”

The question sent the sales rep into a complete state of confusion, placing immediate pressure on the rep to provide an answer. The rep’s answer could possibly win or lose the sale making for as unpleasant a question any salesperson would ever want to face.

So, what goes through the minds of produce directors during sales presentations and what makes them tick?

In this scenario, the first thought by the produce director was about the full tomato assortment they already stock. The second thought was how the sales rep failed to introduce any new features or other unique details. This was just another tomato — nothing different from the rest.

Understanding how to connect with retailers is crucial in order to consummate a deal, especially on a first appointment. It can be quite challenging trying to sell a product line without a matching dialogue.

I heard a great number of sales rep presentations in my days as a produce director. Many were masters at selling and usually knew what I was thinking during their sales pitches. Others were average, inexperienced or just simply unprepared. It only took a few minutes to discover the imperfections of individual selling skills.

Had the sales rep in the provided example given details of how the tomatoes were “different,” then it would perhaps have opened the door for a more positive interest. Directors usually like items and programs that are new, different and unique.

Produce directors usually know what’s in the minds of salespeople. Their first priority is to meet their budgeted volume quota. The second is to convince the director to buy a product by every means available.

Times have, of course, changed and it’s more difficult today to get a foot in the door of a retailer than ever before. Not only is it due to the extra workload on the shoulders of produce directors, it also has to do with a greater demand to control the operational costs of the business and to generate a much higher gross profit. In other words — make more money.

These weighty workloads and operating responsibilities are eating up the produce director’s time and these constraints make it extremely difficult to sit in on all full-scale sales presentations, making it absolutely imperative that every selling pitch be productive.

With all the fast-paced work activities of today, time is one of the biggest opponents of sales reps. It could take an average of 15 phone calls to finally reach a decision maker. The conversation must then be brief and about setting up a one-on-one appointment.

Keep in mind, if it’s just another tomato, apple or salad mix, the interest level will fall below the chances of landing an appointment. However, if it’s a new, different or unique tomato, apple or salad mix, the interest level rises higher and an appointment should be less difficult to get booked.

Here are some tips about what flows through the mind of a produce director when listening to a product presentation:

  • Budget — must be attained (one reason many deals could break down)
  • Gross profit — must be achieved
  • Cost — must be in the affordable range
  • Retail — must attract and generate customer sales
  • Turnover — must move rapidly through the system to prevent shrink
  • Inventory — must maintain low asset level (cannot get stuck)

A sales rep can have a fantastic product and program, but if it can’t be communicated in the mind of the produce director, he or she most likely won’t buy it.

Two final points to keep in mind:

  • Produce directors don’t buy product, they buy gross profit.
  • Produce directors want to be sold ideas over just product.

Ron Pelger is the owner of RonProCon, a produce industry advisory firm. He is also a produce industry merchandising director and a freelance writer. He can be contacted at 775-843-2394 or by e-mail at