Fresh Food

Produce Industry’s Future Is Ripe With High-Tech/High-Touch

PMA CEO Cathy Burns talks trends and talent retention at 2018 Fresh Summit
PMA’s CEO Cathy Burns delivered a powerful annual State of the Industry address on Oct. 18 at the 2018 Fresh Summit Convention & Expo in Orlando, Fla.; Photograph courtesy of PMA

From robotics and automation to social media and sustainability, Produce Marketing Association (PMA) CEO Cathy Burns’ annual State of the Industry address on Oct. 18 at the 2018 Fresh Summit Convention & Expo in Orlando, Fla., shone a light on an industry pulsing with innovation and promise.

Burns’ presentation highlighted five key areas of growth and change for the produce and floral industry:

1. Online Opportunities

Hundreds of millions of Americans are compelled to post photos of their food on Instagram. And with the third-party food delivery sector expected to reach $24.5 billion by 2022, apps such as Instagram have added “take action” buttons that allow consumers to order food from their smartphone, said Burns.

Seventy-six percent of U.S. consumers purchased a product they discovered in a brand’s social media post. And what’s more, viewers retain 95% of a message when they watch it on video, compared to 10% when reading it. Marketers should think about what this means for their video content and social channels, Burns said.

In the consumer realm, global grocery sales through e-commerce channels increased 30% in the past year. Countries leading this growth charge are China, South Korea, the United Kingdom and France. The U.S. experienced just 5% growth, with 28% of shoppers purchasing fruits and vegetables online. Skepticism remains in the U.S. as to whether this channel can meet consumer standards for freshness and quality.

2. Robotics and Automation

There is continued growth in robotics—from retail to foodserviceand the fresh produce and floral industry will look more and more to technology to meet its labor needs, noted Burns.

“Robotic assistants help ease some of the challenges in finding both human and nonhuman help in the field,” said Burns, pointing to examples such as Robomart, an autonomous mobile convenience-store prototype launched in the U.S., and Creator restaurant, which features an automated burger-making robot.

Yet “while high-tech experiences certainly provide a ‘wow’ factor, human employees play an important role in providing a personalized, customized experience for consumers,” she said. “Technology won’t be able to handle all of the skills people can.”  

3. Industry Talent

Keeping talented employees, particularly millennials and Gen Z, will require employers to offer meaningful work, flexibility and education/training that helps these workers to keep their professional skills in line with changing technologies, said Burns, who cited a McKinsey Global Institute report that found that by 2030, demand for technological skills will rise by 55%, while demand for social and emotional skills will rise by 24%.

Another study finds that workers are taking a closer look at how businesses treat people and the planet.

Millennials’ opinions about business’ motivations and ethics—which had trended up the past two years—decreased in 2018, as did their sense of loyalty. In 2018, only 48% of millennials believe businesses behave ethically and 47% believe business leaders are committed to helping improve society.

Because of this, 43% of millennials envision leaving their jobs within two years, and an overwhelming 61% of Gen Z said they would leave within two years, if given the choice.

4. Sustainability Surges

“Businesses are increasingly being judged based on their relationships with their workers, customers, communities and impact on society,” said Burns. 

Since sustainability beliefs have driven growth in plant-based foods, researchers from Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., conducted a study to learn how consumers best receive the better-for-the-planet message. They found that front-of-pack sustainability icons don’t draw shoppers in.

During a study that used mobile eye tracking, 92% of participants did not notice sustainability logos on the packages, despite more than 40% claiming sustainability influences their buying decisions.

Instead, researchers recommend a more effective way to engage consumers on sustainability is through integrated marketing and education.

5. A Culture of Food Safety

With this year’s catastrophic romaine outbreak, food safety remains top of mind for the entire industry. However, PMA believes the industry’s approach and perspective needs strengthening, and that produce safety must be a cornerstone of an organization’s values, character and culture.

“The industry’s mindset around produce safety must shift from a cost center to a cultural imperative,” Burns told the Fresh Summit audience. “If we are going to grow a healthier world, we must continue to shape cultural influences and share the incredible work our industry does every day with a global audience. Our future depends on it.” 

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