The Food Retail Gatekeepers

Generally speaking, food changes hands many times before it ends up on your plate. The sad truth is that we have very little power, in the grand scheme of things, as consumers, to access some of the food products that we want or need. Why? Because there are so many gatekeepers along the way.

For a processed grocery item, it must first be created by someone, who makes a decision, based on research or a just a hunch, that the product will sell. Then that producer or processor has to move the product around. Usually this is not their strength, so they pitch it to a broker or directly to a distributor, again, thresholds. Some distributors can tell a great product off the bat. They will accept or deny a listing based on whether they think it would be consistently available, the margin would be adequate, the assumed response from store owners would be positive, and how much space it would consume in the warehouse. These distributors can make it or break it for a new product or business. The next step is the store owners. A breed unto themselves. Most of them know their stuff. They can tell right away if their customers would be interested, whether they have enough shelf space, and if the price is right. Small retail food shop owners, especially in the health food and organic sector, are up against very narrow margins, high turnover, and therefore management of products on the shelf, and a zillion different products to choose from and reorder. If it isn’t easy to do, if it doesn’t move quickly, or if someone isn’t there to hold their hands to make the order, products can become forgotten, and then consumers don’t even have the choice to buy them. Another factor that often comes into play is whether the store owner likes or dislikes the products. It isn’t even about what the customer wants, but whether the proprietor would buy it for him or herself.

Even though this is the industry in which I am currently making a living, I still find the reality of it frustrating. When I analyze the industry, I appreciate even more the opportunity for direct sales at markets, or through wholesalers, eating seasonally and processing my own products. Hence the penchant for sweet little glass jars of things and bulk frozen berries taking up all of my freezer space.

The next time you’re in the grocery store, just think about the products you see on the shelf. Who made them? Who developed the recipe? Who moved the product from point A to point B to point C? Where was it warehoused? Who ordered the product for the store? How many sales reps put time and energy into presenting the product to the grocery manager? How quickly does the product move off of the shelf? It sure is a complex system. It’s because of all of these decision makers’ decision making that it is difficult to access the products made by small, local businesses with strong values, but not necessarily a lot of time or resources to advocate for shelf space. Compare that to the overly processed junk that ensures high turnover and nice profit margins occupying so much of that coveted space. What’s wrong with this picture from a health perspective; from a local economic perspective?

Thoughts?

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One response to “The Food Retail Gatekeepers

  1. I try to avoid shopping at supermarkets and large grocery stores, in general, but now and then conditions align and I don’t have a better choice.

    When the Dominion stores switched to Metros, I remember feeling like the selection had shrunk–fewer varities of lettuce, fewer types of potato, fewer lines of cereal and eggs and dairy and cured meats. Granted, all this was already conventionally produced, rarely fresh or local, and fraught with issues larger than the ones you present here in your essay.

    But, likely these changes were made in response to sales analyses–probably, people mostly bought Kraft and Kellogg and iceberg lettuce and white mid-size potatoes, and there was spoilage and waste and past-expiry boxed goods loading down that Dominion model (which eventually tanked the huge chain store altogether).

    So, if that many things got the axe in a massive shop, I can only imagine how tough, fickle, reticent and complex the same system is, when operating on the small scale you’re talking about.

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