By the Numbers: Measuring success in a pandemic
November 5, 2020
Getting the November low-down with owner Cindy at the Dorset Union Store
Grocers: It's going to get crazy
It is a weird week with the election & expanding pandemic both contributing to uncertainty. We are keeping Small Bites a mere nibble. However, we are still including great, topical & timely info that touches on seasonality & business formulas.
Grocery as an occupation is always drilling down into numbers. Success in business is determined by understanding numbers. Sales numbers as year over year, sales per square foot (or even cubic inch!), labor as percent of sales, department sales as percentage of overall sales, product turns. You get the picture.
Measurement is at every level in the supply chain. From producer/suppliers through trucking services, distribution costs, & finally to grocers. Along the way, everyone in this complex business is trying to hold down costs, while still making their margin, sales, & labor projections.
In a pandemic with the holiday season here, there are many uncertainties in the supply chain. This is leading to changes in customers association with brand loyalty by trying new products.
New dynamics are in place impacting inventory & customer service. Brattleboro Food Coop is helping ease customer holiday shopping nerves while serving the greatest number of community members. When production or distribution is met with barriers, shoppers respond. This is especially true in some categories like paper products & household cleaners. It has also had a positive impact on our local producers, particularly meat. 
For meat producers, this has been quite the year managing unpredictable sales, slaughter dates & cash flow. At Snug Valley Farm they have had very steady & sometimes increased sales to retail stores this year.
For years they have had a freezer for their meat at Willey's General Store. But this year was the first time fresh cuts of grass-fed beef sold from the meat department resulting in higher than anticipated rates. This was much to their delight as they had lost sales at restaurants. With a recent pre-pandemic re-branding they invested in a logo & packaging redesign to better compete with national brands on store shelves. This decision had been well-timed as it seems to be working. Their product is found at many stores including Hunger Mountain Coop, Sweet Clover Market & Buffalo Mountain Coop.

Interested in selling Snug Valley meat at your store? Contact Ben & Kelly for details. 
Improve your numbers with Farm to Plate staff training
With support from Farm to Plate Retail Services, your store can get a refreshing new look & re-engage staff training, assist with inventory management, & engage in operations to improve financial literacy. For training info see contact info at below.
A must have in your produce department! Be like City Market and sell Vermont Cranberries
Be mindful of your display sizes

Apples are transitioning into controlled atmosphere storage; be sure your displays are commensurate with anticipated sales. If not, quality can diminish quickly as not all apples are arriving to you from C.A.S.
A few things to consider:
  • Dismantle your displays at night & bring into your cooler.
  • Reduce the size of displays as customers are shifting their purchases a bit.
  • Merchandise pie varieties together (& bring in Mirabelle's pie crust from Lesser).
  • Reduce or eliminate some of the more fragile varieties, some like Cortland are wonderful to eat out of hand right now, while Liberty are less robust
  • Encourage staff to taste an apple a day to help determine flavor profiles & if they are holding up well. They may be sold as pie or sauce apples as needed to reduce inventory
  • Not all apples come to market at the same time, the more you learn, the better your sales will be
Supporting Vermont producers has taken on new imperative with the impacts of the pandemic. At the heart, is helping each other keep dollars in our local economy. At the Warren Store, they sell Farmhouse Chocolates to locals & travelers. The wonderful packaging & premium in-store merchandising creates strong inventory turns.

The chocolatiers located in Bristol, welcome new retail customers through DSD or through Associated Buyers. The handcrafted chocolates are also available wholesale to stores through the 3rd party platform Faire. Each method of distribution impacts food producers' profit margin uniquely. 
Not sure how to build a strong produce department? Let us help you with in-store trainings, video, & other training options including hands-on tutorials & merchandising exercises. Helpful tricks & tips can be just what you need to up your game.Woodstock Farmer's Market is one of our favorite stores incorporating "best practices". We showcase this display of contrasting colors & its abundant look.

For training...Have you ever done an in-store audit? Take a section & see your store (or department) through a new lens & make needed improvements.
A key to local food sales in Vermont: Lesser Distribution helping businesses grow.
Distribution Let's Look Locally
So, we have the "BIG GUYS" (Reinhart, Performance, UNFI, KeHe, USFoods, Sysco etc) then we have the "little guys". Here in Vermont, Lesser Distribution, a single truck solo-operator, is doing more local food sales then some of the those big guys. OK it's all about the numbers, looking at percent of sales this is definitely true!
Michael Lesser has built his business on supporting the local economy. His focus is on VT products & independent stores along existing routes to obtain efficiency. He plays a vital role in helping food manufactures reach shoppers. In his case it means he personally is buying product AND trucking it. Not an easy feat.
By not having huge overhead, and no interest in a large staff to help with buying, marketing & forecasting margin through "trade spend" Michael is able to deliver fair prices for products he sells. Grocers in turn can help support VT producers with well-displayed products & appropriate inventory levels.
Michael's deft hand in customer service as a solo operator is a rather rare & unique position. He is one of a few small distributors in the state doing this & it matters that they meet all the needs of supply, demand, price & service. Something he does well. Contact him for current delivery routes. Other local distributors include Pumpkin Village Foods & Kathy Killam both have a positive impact on Vermont food manufacturers by helping them get product into stores.

With the pandemic, more folks are purchasing local products (see Snug Valley Farm update). Some of Lesser’s most highly sought after products at Jericho Country Store are Mirabelle’s take & bake frozen croissants & pie crust...PIE CRUSTS to make the best homemade holiday pies.

Across the state stores are featuring Friday night home pizza parties. These are fast becoming our new normal. Goodman American Pie pizza sells like crazy at every store. Other stores are offering their own Friday Night Pizza with in-house made pizza using VT produce & other local ingredients. Brownsville Butcher & Pantry is thrilled to reintroduce Friday Night Pizza.
More on numbers
You are training your staff. How well do you yourself understand inventory turnover? This of course is applicable to store buyers but also for food
manufacturers to understand the impact of sales on their business. It has an influence on your inventory management skills AND how you may be tying up valuable dollars in slow selling product.
Quote of the Week

" I'd say we are doing well considering but we have put in an exhausting amount of effort to make it all work & we hope next year things will be a little easier." -Snug Valley Farm
Help! How can my staff help customers choose potatoes for Thanksgiving?

Information is key! Encourage time for staff to learn about varietals & uses. With holidays coming up, mashed potato info is needed. Thus, what potato should you be selling for mashing?
  • Choose the starchy russet or “baking” potatoes- for a fluffy mash with full flavor
  • Large white “chef all purpose" tend to be large, easy to peel & provide a more creamy mash
  • For a denser, yet still creamy mash, choose a yellow variety such as Yukon Gold or Carola. These will impart a full buttery flavor & a yellow tone. They are smaller than russets & white "chef" taking longer to peel.
  • Remember to provide ample signage to help customers make the right purchase.
Every store is gearing up for an uncertain holiday season. First up, is Thanksgiving when we generally travel to be with family. We know, covid is spreading & we are getting messages from the state around travel & gathering which can impact shopping behavior.
How do we order & plan for sales? Buyers are in full mode. But just like everything this year, it will be a bit of a dodgeball game with outcomes yet to be determined. We know turkey will be eaten with pre-orders rising daily at every store selling VT turkey.

Naturally we wonder how it will be for new home-cooks to prepare a turkey. To ease some stress, prepared food departments are expecting & planning for larger than usual pre-orders of side dishes, pies & pre-made heat & eat gravy. 
A couple more things
Next week is the Farm to Plate 10th Annual Gathering, November 12 & 13. Add your perspective to the many conversations. Grocers, farmers, distributors, VT food manufacturers & activists are encouraged to attend.

NOFA-VT has put together a guidebook for direct-marketing farmers who are looking to expand their offerings to SNAP customersIt provides step-by-step instructions for farms to accept SNAP on their farm, at farmers markets, & through CSAs or delivery.
VAAFM has a regular e-news of info & resources for farmers & interested folks. We encourage stores & distributors become informed on agricultural issues & solutions to our vibrant agriculture. Find the current issue & sign up here.
Unless otherwise noted, photo credits are from company social media, websites or Annie Harlow

Farmhouse Chocolates photo credit: Warren Store
Mashed potato photo credit: Elise Bauer

Sign up for free in-store training while there is still time!
Contact: Annie H Harlow

Grateful for the funding support provided by High Meadows Fund
Week 35 of Covid November 5, 2020