This is my first article in an ongoing series where I’ll do a deep dive into various retailers and learn how they approach business relationships with their suppliers. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to meet with these heavy-hitters and share their insights about buying and selling fresh produce.
Tony Mitchell, Vice President Corporate Produce and Floral for Associated Wholesale Grocers (AWG) has more than 30 years’ experience procuring and selling fresh produce at retail grocery. He shares a wealth of knowledge and epitomizes the friendly, generous nature of the fresh produce industry. Here’s what he has to say.
Tony Mitchell: Founded in 1924, AWG is the largest co-op wholesaler and service provider for independently owned and operated supermarkets. We have nine distribution centers (DCs) and 3,200-plus members operating in multiple states located in the central corridor of the United States. Our footprint starts as far south as Texas and Louisiana, up through Oklahoma, Missouri, Tennessee, and Nebraska, as far north as Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Our members are all independents. We have multiple banners within our co-op, including Cosentino’s, Harps, IGA, Market Basket, Price Chopper, Rouse’s, and Thriftway.
We’re broadliners—AWG procures everything for our members that they would sell in their stores. But it goes way beyond procurement. We provide everything members need to set up a grocery store and operate it successfully: real estate services, design, engineering, training, merchandising, sales, systems, you name it.
TM: We are approaching $1 billion in fresh produce and floral sales, and we can only do that with “Best in Class” suppliers. Each of our divisions has a Fresh team that supports our members in various ways.
Because we have nine DCs and 3,200 somewhat unique, member-operated stores, it takes vendors with the size, capacity, and logistics capabilities to supply us 52 weeks a year. We work with smaller vendors too, and we’re always interested in new items, but they need to provide the service and consistency that helps us take care of our members.
We do business with a lot of key suppliers in the industry. Our members often look at those suppliers as their “private label,” brands—the package or box may say DOLE, Ocean Mist® Farms, Red Sun Farms™, or Sunkist®, but our members consider those labels their brands.
Other differences are how we support and communicate with members. We provide what we call 30-day-lockdown deals for added value on 5 to 15 different items at a time for the month. A web blast goes to all 3,200 members via our storefront to alert them of special deals.
We are doing some really interesting stuff, and we’re growing! We’ve got really cool independent members doing really cool things that some of the giants in our industry can’t necessarily do. If you’re not doing business with AWG today, reach out. I’m approachable, so if a supplier has items and ideas that can help our members, let’s talk.
"We are approaching $1 billion in fresh produce and floral sales and we can only do that with “Best in Class” suppliers. Each of our divisions has a Fresh team that supports our members in various ways."
Tony Mitchell, Vice President Corporate Produce and Floral, Associated Wholesale Grocers
TM: We look for suppliers who partner with us day-in and day-out at both the corporate and divisional levels. Communication is critical: knowing when to pick up the phone and talking to each other.
Our best suppliers support us—and, more importantly, our members—through ups and downs with consistent, high-quality fresh produce. We understand issues by Mother Nature, I’m not talking about occasional gapping due to weather.
We want to be a good partner too, and we look for suppliers who will work with us to help our members grow—what can they do for our members, do they have planograms or data specific to their market areas? Too often Nielsen and IRI data provided is for the whole country when regional data that’s specific to each member is what we need.
TM: Come to me with your ideas! We love to provide options to our divisions and members. Whether it’s sampling, digital coupons, participation in our 30-day-lockdown deals, or something else, I want to know about it.
Corporate provides divisions and members with options. At the division level, we collaborate with members to implement promotions that will work for their banners and region. But we live by the philosophy that what’s good for one is good for all. It’s important to treat all our members equitably.
AWG field specialists also support members in a variety of ways. We make sure we’re doing whatever we can to support all our members, regardless of size and needs.
TM: This starts at the corporate level. Since our members’ stores are so varied, we can assist in channeling what a supplier can offer to the best divisions and members. Whether that is merchandising displays, signage, coupons, let me know what you want to do.
We also have meetings one or two times per year with suppliers to give them the opportunity to introduce new items, present data, and share ideas for supporting our members.
TM: Relationships are key. It’s all about relationships! It’s a large industry, but it’s also a really small industry. On the buy- and sell-sides, we know each other, we talk to each other, we have a beer together…and that’s how we get things done. I feel so blessed to have long term friendships with the people I do business with.
As the economy changes, if we’re up against difficult times, strong relationships and good communication make all the difference. You’ve got to be with the right players, those who you’re aligned with.
TM: I see more private labels and consolidation on the horizon, which makes supplier selection and those tight relationships even more important.
Many thanks to Tony for such an enlightening glimpse behind the AWG curtain! With the close of this first part of the series, I am eager to dive deeper into the different aspects of retail our industry has to offer.