COVID has impacted the specialty food industry for a full year. In the SFA’s newly released State of the Specialty Food Industry report, 2021-2022 edition, members of the supply chain were candid on the ways the pandemic has positively and negatively affected their businesses.
Here is some of what they had to say about in person versus virtual meetings, the challenges of staying connected, and keeping on top of what’s moving as well as new product discovery:
“In some ways things have gotten busier because, rather than getting to talk to everyone at a one-day show, I have to talk to all of those people individually. I don’t have to travel to see them anymore, but I still have to connect with them.”
-regional sales manager at a specialty dairy brand
“We’ve kept on a pretty good track [with promotions and retailer meetings], but we have a lot of retailer buyers that are still not seeing people face to face. We have some that I don’t believe are ever going to go back to face to face. I think they’re going to remain either in a virtual environment or they’re going to do some sort of controlled category management presentations with dedicated periods of time. Because it’s easier in the virtual environment to stay on schedule and on time.
There’s been a lot of outsourcing, roles that used to be done at retailer X are now done by the main distributor for that retailer such as the actual physical entering of promotions, printing of tags, and making sure that the pricing is right.”
-SVP, business development at a specialty food and beverage broker
“Something that retail buyers have missed during COVID relates to the trends, and they’re asking, ‘What’s the next CBD, or the next plant-based category that’s going to explode?’ They’ve been able to survive with talking to their trusted brokers, advisors, distributors, and brands, but they still miss that experience of talking to new brands, especially those that need education. It’s hard to do that via Zoom.”
-head of sales at a specialty dessert brand
“Supply chain sourcing stabilized pretty quickly. We did not have the same experiences that a lot of box stores did, because of the diversity of who we buy from. We began leveraging our foodservice supply chain, which plummeted as restaurants and hotels closed. We had no problem taking 50-pound bags of flour and putting them in to 5–10-pound bags and selling them.
Our guests appreciated the fact that they could get most of what they wanted. They might not have been the same brands or same sizes that they normally were used to, but they still had access to what they needed. We’ve got a long history of being restaurant-type operators and so we were able to be a little bit more nimble than the typical supermarket that’s super reliant on a particular SKU that fits in a particular slot that’s already entered in a system.”
-founder, owner of a multi-store specialty food retailer and foodservice operator
“For these younger brands, virtual meetings level the playing field, since you don’t have to fly somewhere, pay for hotel and dining expenses, etc. All of that makes it so much more affordable to pitch to retail accounts for these emerging brands, and I think that that is a welcome change. I don’t think the virtual pitch is going to go away, simply because it’s easier for the buyers and it’s more equitable for the brands.”
-owner, founder of a specialty brand consultancy
“For us it’s a matter of staying on top of what’s moving. We’re constantly rotating and moving things and that’s why our customers like coming in. We’re never going to have a store that’s more than 1,000 square feet, because it’s too big. [At big stores], it’s almost information overload. How do you discover new things if you’re overloaded by different products and brands? It’s a nice conversation that you have with your customers in this small format because you’re listening to them, but you’re also educating them more than ever.”
-founder of a specialty c-store concept
“It’s hard to get the same level of dialog with our retailers when we’re doing things on Zoom. It’s less personal and hard to make a connection. The food business is so much about the passion and enthusiasm of tasting it, and you either couldn’t send product to people or the companies had different rules on what they could receive. It would have been much harder if we were still a young company that needed to make new personal connections.”
-CEO of a specialty chocolate brand
“We launched a new and emerging brand program just before the pandemic hit, which turned out to be lucky because the demand bounced back so fast that we ended up onboarding more new suppliers in 2020 than ever before.
We’ll do fewer in-person meetings going forward, which is causing us to think about how our offices are laid out, and our retailers are doing the same thing. We previously traveled to do category reviews with our retail partners, those are now done virtually. We’ll still go back to in-person meetings, just not as frequently.”
-SVP, category management and growth solutions for a specialty distributor
“I don’t plan to go back to my office much at all, and a lot of my staff is the same way. Retailers want the samples of food and to see the product, but they have also gotten accustomed to the succinctness of an online meeting. They have found they can be a lot more productive when there is less time taken up by the in-person discussions that go in many directions. We send a lot more samples, which tends to give us smaller opportunities with each client but ones that are more likely to succeed.”
-national sales director at a specialty importer and distributor
“All relationships are being maintained with buyers via Zoom, and the same with our vendor meetings. I’ll bet that is going to stick – not 100 percent because you still need that human interaction. But for a supplier especially, it’s a lot easier to do it virtually rather than get on a plane to visit our offices. For our partners, there aren’t any relationships that we’re walking away from. Our relationships strengthened because of the need to do these repeated meetings and discuss service levels. As far as large CPG vendors go, we had to work with them more than usual and it helped us work through those relationships that have been a challenge in the past.”
-VP vendor relations at a specialty distributor
You can learn more about market growth, fluctuations, and drivers, as well 10-year category tracking and forecasts by purchasing the State of the Specialty Food Industry, 2021-2022 Edition.
And weigh in on what you think the new post-pandemic industry norms will be in our discussion in the Community Hub.