How has COVID-19 affected the fresh produce sector in the UK?
Photo courtesy of Tesco

Seven tough questions in preparing for the post-pandemic future

Don Harris
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Originally printed in the March 2021 issue of Produce Business.

As we move into the second year of our pandemic-created reality, it’s become clear that whenever the virus ceases to be a major factor in our industry, things will never be the same as they were prior to March 2020.

Innovative and resourceful produce retailers are looking forward to what will be the next phase of their operations as we enter the post COVID-19 world. The Produce world must look forward and anticipate what will be the evolving marketplace and what the new “fresh” consumer will be purchasing.

While it may be very difficult to not get caught up in the fervor of wishing for a return to “normal operations,” we must resist the temptation and assumption that things will return to what was normal practice prior to the virus. We must recognize that the consumer has changed in ways that we are just becoming aware of and will be a different, evolving, and unique customer going forward. Now is the time for that intuitive examination of your operation and what has transpired last year to determine what should be the direction your operation takes as we emerge from the pandemic.

This exercise will require examining all the data you have observed in the past few months as well as the trends and consumption patterns generated by these unique challenges and adopted by the customers. This evaluation must be honest and consider all possible alternatives, no matter how “out-of-the-box” they may seem, to generate the type of action plan that can be flexible enough to handle any new challenges but also futuristic enough to anticipate this evolving situation. Our best bet is to face this uncertain future with an innovative plan that applies the lessons learned from a comprehensive review of circumstances and challenges that have risen during this period and have been overcome by creative thinking.


To be successful in this endeavor, we must examine every aspect of our operation, its reaction and performance in the face of the pandemic. Begin by a review of your selection and presentation of items to be sure you are maximizing their appeal and filling the needs of our “new” consumer. When examining your product line be sure to ask the tough questions:

  1. Are you carrying the right items?
    1. Should you reevaluate the number of items in a category necessary to maximize sales?
    1. Would it be advantageous to reduce variety or look at introducing variety on a rotation basis?
    1. Should you re-distribute additional space to those items that performed better during the pandemic or continue allocating space at present levels?
    1. Are you maximizing the potential for pickup and delivery?
    1. Is your labor allocation plan working efficiently and maximizing your opportunity for sales?
    1. Should you look at ordering procedures to make sure you have enough stock for those shopping the department in person and those ordering via the pickup/delivery portal?

These are just some of the questions that you should be asking yourself to prepare for what the future will be within your operation. In addition, there is nothing wrong with starting with a blank slate: Are there any new concepts that you have wanted to initiate or experiment with that would fit into your anticipation of the “new normal”? There is no better time than the present to give these new concepts a trial run to see how they perform.

By surviving the past year, your operation and team members have learned how to make plans flexible enough to meet and overcome the challenges of a global pandemic. They must use these skills to anticipate and formulate plans to continue the evolution of the operation into a successful enterprise that is ready to meet the uncertain challenges in the future and capitalize on the opportunities they represent.

The successful produce retailer in the “new normal” environment will be the one who can diagnose and harness what will be the new trends and expectations of the marketplace and consumer as we emerge from this unprecedented time of challenges and functional change. We must use this time as an opportunity to capitalize on and incorporate all the learnings, new procedures, and unique solutions developed during the pandemic into our ongoing and future operations.

The industry cannot afford to “pine” for the “old normal” and the way things used to be, or we run the risk of falling behind the times and becoming vulnerable to enlightened, innovative competition. Those produce retailers who take the initiative and intuitively look at the potential and new aspects of the upcoming environment to make their plans will be the ones rewarded with the benefits of their operation moving ahead in the evolving “new normal”.

Don Harris is a 41-year veteran of the produce industry, with most of that time spent in retail. He worked in every aspect of the industry, from “field-to-fork” in both the conventional and organic arenas. Harris is presently consulting. Comments can be directed to [email protected].

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