Reflecting on how the retail landscape has changed over the past year, short, local supply chains and diversely-owned brands have never been as important as they are now, said panelists during the Specialty Food Live! session “Buying in 2021: DEI, Sourcing, and Beyond,” Tuesday.
Darrell Vannoy, vice president of merchandising and procurement at PCC Community Markets, Danielle Vogel, founder of Glen’s Garden Market, and Scott Crawford, chief merchandising officer for FreshDirect, spoke about how they make their purchasing decisions and support women- and BIPOC-owned brands.
Local Saves the Day
Supply chain issues that presented challenges for larger brands during the pandemic presented smaller, local makers with an opportunity, said Vogel.
“We had a very special moment with local brands,” she said. “They were the only ones on our shelves for a moment.” Since Glen’s Garden Market prides itself on its connections with smaller producers, it was able to call upon them and order larger quantities than usual to fill up spaces on the shelves.
PCC Community Markets had a similar experience. “We were lucky enough to have a strong local distribution network,” Vannoy said. He added that PCC’s private label relationships also helped the retailer maintain supply.
“Our local egg supplier was able to get to us when UNFI wasn’t,” he said. “PCC private label eggs were our number one item sold during the hoarding phase of the pandemic.”
Though some small food makers have found it harder to get in front of retail buyers during the past year, Vannoy said that now is the best time to reach out to local, independent grocers.
“We’re always leaning into our community,” he said.
According to Crawford, FreshDirect brought in almost 1,500 new items in grocery in 2020, more than it did pre-COVID.
“We’re not large grocery behemoths,” he said. “We’re quick; I turn over 25 percent of my SKUs every year. If you’ve got something good for the market and you’ve got the enthusiasm, we’re going to get you in.”
Vogel is using this time to help smaller vendors perfect their product and convincing them that you don’t necessarily need face time with a buyer.
“I tell them you have to lean with your product, not your personality. The pricing and packaging have to be right, and the product has to be delicious,” she said.
Vogel added that not having traditional face-to-face buyers meetings may be a blessing in disguise, as buyers now have to get to know and evaluate the product, just as the customer does in-store.
A Greater Focus on Diversity
Vogel created the AccelerateHERdc program in 2018 as a pitch competition to help women-owned businesses. However, sensing the need to get funding to brands more immediately, she changed it to a grant program in 2020, and to even further ensure the funds were getting into the right hands, the program became targeted to women of color.
Two grant winners have been named each quarter since the program started. One of the fall 2020 winners, Petit Soeur, founded by Ashleigh Pearson, is running a chocolate shop inside of Glen’s Garden Market. The opportunity presented itself when Glen’s self-service bar had to be closed due to the pandemic. Vogel thought to use the space for the shop while Pearson looks for her own retail space.
PCC also has a grant program for BIPOC vendors. “People submit their ideas, and we finance a grant to support their operations,” said Vannoy. “They also get to spend time with our merchandising team learning about the right packaging and pricing. It helps give people a chance.”
For Black History Month, FreshDirect ran a campaign highlighting its Black-owned brands, including Pipcorn, A Dozen Cousins, and Yolélé, which saw great success.
“We saw a 200 to 400 percent lift depending on the item,” said Crawford.
He added that his merchandising team is a big driver of diversity among FreshDirect’s products. “The team challenges each other on this conversation, which is one we’ve been having for at least the past six years,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do. It’s about standing these brands up, putting them forward, and making competitors wonder why they aren’t doing the same.”