November, 1994

Fruits of Thought

PMA's First Food Show

The produce industry has undergone a transformation, and the PMA trade show has been changed as well. It is no longer the old-style commodity fair one attends just to see old friends and meet new suppliers. The PMA trade show has become the produce industry’s first true food show, where buying organizations come to see new products, new packages, new labels and new promotional campaigns unveiled.

It’s a sign of sophistication for the produce industry. For years you’ve heard major food products being unveiled at the Food Marketing Institute Convention or National Restaurant Association Convention. And in other industries, such as computers, it’s the big trade shows that serve as the venues for big product releases.

But the produce trade shows have always reflected the commodity-driven nature of the industry. The products didn’t matter; the people did. So, I’ve seen banana companies simply put their stickers on another company’s bananas when they had problems with their own. I’ve seen marketers of imported grapes have a big bowl of California grapes on display at PMA because their product was available at the time. And you know something? It didn’t matter. Because everyone in the industry knows what a grape and a banana is and so the product was mainly decoration. Not one buyer needed to visit a trade show to see what grapes look like.

Oh, how the world of produce has changed! Tanimura & Antle surprised the buyers with a line combining fresh produce with products such as pasta and sauces. One could practically see deli directors and produce directors fighting it out across the country as the question of domain gets settled. And then there was a T & A line of salads designed just for kids. A toy in every package. Someone has been studying marketing of cereals.

Other producers, big and small, had their innovations. Ocean Mist artichoke had a revolution in artichoke packaging. A clear plastic container holds two slightly trimmed artichokes, and the container is designed to be microwaved 12 minutes for perfect artichokes with no work and nothing to clean up.

Sometimes just a label can make a big difference. Mann Packing unveiled a label that harkens back to old-time farming, and Dole’s fresh-cuts were showing off a new label, the product of some well thought contemporary design.

And you don’t have to be a giant to have something different. Lee Peters at Fowler Packing in New York State was showing off a new consumer package holding three apples.

Some of the innovations were really in the test stage. Fresh Western Marketing was showing a line of fresh-cut fruit that it is working hard on developing.

There was much more, of course, and that is the point. You really had to be there. See these introductions, taste the new food products. Discuss the new labels and the research behind them with company personnel. Learn about the new promotional programs planned to sell these innovations to the consumer and to the trade.

The change at PMA is a reflection of changes sweeping the industry, and people like Dick Spezzano, this year’s PMA chairman, Jeff Gargiulo, chairman-elect, as well as Bob Carey, PMA’s longtime president, all were smart enough to encourage the flowering of seeds that were just ready to burst out in the produce trade.

The industry owes these people, the others who were involved in creating the event and the exhibitors themselves a big vote of thanks because having a venue such as the PMA convention will become more, not less, important in the years to come as the industry continues its move to a value-added future.

And the challenge and the opportunity for industry members is increasingly clear. The challenge is simple: doing this right is going to be a lot more work. The old plan of dusting off the booth and getting a haircut and a shoeshine to head off to a convention is no longer enough. Sharp marketers will realize they need programs and new products to unveil at these events. It means planning months, sometimes years in advance, to have new and exciting things to present at PMA.

All this is not to say that plenty of people won’t still be just shaking hands. It’s just that as the show grows, they will have a harder and harder time getting people’s attention when others are taking advantage of the opportunity to show buyers new ways to increase sales and profits.

But this opportunity is really one of getting back to marketing principles. For all the new and exciting things, the basics remain. Good suppliers try to help their customers make money by selling good products at fair prices, by developing new, more efficient ways to work together and by finding new products and services that make sense for customers to buy.

For buyers, the new PMA trade show is an incredible opportunity to see, in 3-D, the produce world of the moment. To sellers, it is not only a moment to sell but a reminder on everyone’s calendar of the need for perpetual innovation. For the trade as a whole, PMA has become a testament to the excitement of an industry transforming itself before our very eyes.  pb