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Do Ex-Retailers Transition Well as Suppliers? A Tale of Two Sides

After 30 years with Dominick’s Supermarkets and almost 10 with Walmart/Sam’s Club, I transitioned to the “supply” side of the business with a “little” company called Sun Pacific. Many of my retailer friends and colleagues asked me what that move was like, and how it has influenced my experiences over the years. There are a few lessons I learned that I would like to share:

   First and foremost, you are on the other side of the desk and you are no longer calling the shots, so check your ego at the door.

   Before calling on a retailer, visit several of their stores and gain an understanding of their operation to identify areas of opportunity.

•   It’s always about sales on both sides of the desk: be a good salesperson.

•   Know your new business. Know what goes into producing or growing or packaging the product you are selling. Know your capabilities and be able to deliver on your promises.

•   As a retailer, you always strive to differentiate yourself from the competition. Do the same as a supplier and give the customer a reason to do business with you.

•   When negotiating, don’t let emotions cloud your judgment or your responses—remember, you’re not calling the shots!

The industry is changing, and a shift in perspective never hurt anyone—Especially if you can see the value of viewing both sides of the coin.

Everyone has his or her own tale to tell, and here is a little bit of mine.

You’ve heard the expression, “Better to be lucky than good,” right? I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work with Sun Pacific (SP), a grower/shipper that specializes in citrus, kiwifruit, and table grapes, and who has made branding a true work of art. This company shared my passion for quality and just happened to be growing a little item called Cuties®, which exploded onto the scene and remains a mainstay today. It was a world-class organization with great people.

I had just completed a project to develop store designs for the new Mariano’s Fresh Markets entering the Chicago, Illinois, area when I received a call from Berne Evans, the Chairman and CEO of Sun Pacific. After some negotiation, we struck a deal and I agreed to work on business development to gain distribution for Sun Pacific’s portfolio of products.

I had limited knowledge of Sun Pacific’s growing operations, and I needed to understand the dynamics and nuances of growing and packing citrus, kiwifruit, and grapes before I could begin to call on prospective customers. Fortunately, the entire Evans family, Al Bates, and the team at Sun Pacific were good teachers who quickly brought me up to speed.

I initially put together programs and focused on gaining new distribution by visiting retailers from coast-to-coast. Over time, I became more involved in the management of the company and with our marketing, new product development, and packaging. In 2012, Berne named me President of Sun Pacific’s Sales and Marketing organization and EVP for his new start-up beverage business, Califia Farms.

These new responsibilities were both exciting and challenging, and I had a great deal to learn. I found along the way that my retail background was very beneficial. Understanding the customers’ challenges and their businesses could work in my favor, but I had to make some very important adjustments, many of which I shared earlier.

   Another point is to remember everyone likes a good story and admires success. If time permits, share the history and the milestones of your company.

   As a retailer, you should have always been trying to “sell” the supplier on what you wanted to do. Just reverse the role now.

   One of my favorites: retailers don’t want dog and pony shows. Keep your presentations brief and relevant.

   Be passionate about your product and about “selling it in.” If you’re not, don’t expect the customer to be excited to see you.

   You both want the best deal you can get, so be prepared to negotiate and know where your boundaries are. Try to avoid having to say, “I will get back to you.” The buyer wants your decision now!

•   If, as a result of your retail experience, you have some suggestions on how to move more product, don’t be afraid to share these with the buyer.

   A little personality goes a long way. To build relationships with buyers, be friendly, engaging, complimentary, and respectful. Show genuine interest in them and in their business.

   And always strive to achieve your goal—close the deal!

The industry is changing, and a shift in perspective never hurt anyone—especially if you can see the value of viewing both sides of the coin. 



Bob DiPiazza began his retail career with Dominick’s Supermarkets, where he advanced to the position of Group VP of Perishables. A graduate of Loyola University in Chicago and a past Chairman of the PMA, Bob joined Walmart Stores Inc. in 1998 and shortly after was promoted to Senior VP and General Merchandise Manager of Sam’s Club US Perishable Food Operations. Bob retired from Walmart in 2008 to return home to Chicago and his extended family. He continued to remain active in the industry as the Principal for a strategic consulting business specializing in the perishable food supply chain.

In 2008, DiPiazza Consulting entered into an agreement with Roundy’s Supermarkets to develop the Mariano’s Fresh Market stores for entry to the greater Chicago area market and with Sun Pacific Growers for business and marketing development programs and strategies. In 2011, Bob was appointed President of Sun Pacific Marketing, a leading California grower, shipper, and marketer of citrus, grapes, kiwi, and tomatoes. He recently completed a 10-year run and is once again focusing on his consulting business as an industry advisor.