Let’s be honest: While we’ll never veer from certain grocery items (I’ll remain forever loyal to Snowville Creamery and La Croix), finding something new at the grocery is exciting. And you know what? Finding those new things for you is a very real job. The lucky people who do it are called grocery buyers.
There are actually people out there paid to go through every yogurt, goat cheese, kale chip, and popsicle before they end up on the shelves of your local market. Here’s a little insight into the glamorous life of the folks who decide what’s in your store.
First: Find the Food
While food makers constantly send in and drop by with samples, the most efficient way to find new products is walking miles of booths of fluorescent-lit trade shows. A mashup of grocery buyers, producers, and thousands upon thousands of toothpicks, trade shows showcase what’s new in consumer packaged goods (CPG).
For natural foods, it’s all about Natural Products Expo East and West, and for specialty foods, the Specialty Food Association hosts the Summer and Winter Fancy Food Shows, including one that just ended in New York City. Dozens of distributor tabletop shows exist in between.
Outside the shows, buyers keep a close eye on the publishing and restaurant worlds, as both are key to predicting food trends before they become Portlandia skit topics or a category on an Applebee’s pull-out menu.
Next: What Matters Beyond Taste
Does the box or bag tell what the item is? Are there appropriate buzzwords? Is the design clean and easy to read? And here's one: Does it fit on the shelf? Packaging is how we, as consumers, can tell what's inside. First impressions are paramount.
"Clean" ingredients are key these days. As shoppers, we’ve been loud and clear on things like fillers, high-fructose corn syrup, and additives. Lucky for us, grocery stores are listening.
While there may be no end to nacho chip companies, there is an end to the amount of space in that department. Buyers closely consider what is already in a category, and try to avoid duplicative items.
Stores are thinking up to six months in advance. (Yes, retailers have already selected their holiday offerings for 2015.) So not only do they have to forecast what will be popular in half a year, but they need to determine just how popular something will be. Will those pumpkin spice — whatevers — be something you buy once a week or, like, three times a week?
For most retailers, a category — such as sauce, ice cream, or health and beauty aids (HBA) — is scrutinized once or twice a year. They take a look at the movement of each product, to see how often each item sells, and existing producers have an opportunity to present new items to be considered. They parade line extensions and new flavors in front of buyers, hoping that after four days of tasting salsas or pastas or salad dressings, theirs will be chosen.
Slow-selling items risk being discontinued during these reviews, and it’s after these reviews that new shelf diagrams are drawn and new lines appear on grocery shelves.
Meet Two Grocery Buyers
That's the big picture. Here, now, are up-close interviews with two real-life grocery buyers.
Rebecca Plaza-Ponte, Cheese Buyer (former Center Store Buyer) Market District
Food love: To be a great buyer, you have to care about your customers, most importantly, and you have to have a passion for food. The best people that I’ve known in the industry love food. They love the entire experience.
Reading list: We read a lot of publications. Bon Appetit, Food and Wine, Tasting Table, even Good Housekeeping (they wrote about something called pork dust, which I haven’t seen at any trade shows yet).
On the shelf: We’re talking a lot about condiments this summer. They have been growing in popularity. We found Bandar Foods Masala Spiced Tomato Ketchup recently. Sir Kensington’s isn’t new, but it's another unique condiment you can find on our shelves. Late July came out with these tortilla chips that are these Doritos-like option for the natural world — bacon habanero. I kept eating samples at the show, which doesn’t happen a lot. There’s so much to eat that when you go back for more, you know it’s good.
Stacey Breidenstein, Store Manager, Liberty Heights Fresh
On travel: Whenever I travel, I make sure to visit other good food retailers to see what they're stocking. And I mean, even if it's just a vacation and not a work trip, I still geek out on visiting grocery stores, health food stores, and specialty shops.
On packaging: Items with tacky packaging don't jive with our store. Also, packing that fits well into displays is important. If a tin looks pretty but isn't stackable, it's harder to merchandise.
Reading list: The digital newsletter from the Specialty Food Association and Specialty Food Magazine, Natural Foods Merchandiser, Culture Magazine, Cook's Illustrated, and Food and Wine Magazine. I love Heritage Radio Network and listen to a lot of their podcasts. I've discovered new products from cheese to vinegar by listening to those podcasts, and I can cook and clean while I listen!
On the shelf: Doma Coffee Roasters just released their 2015 Summer Lovin' Ethiopian Yirgacheffe Gelana Abaya. They're roasting some of the best coffee in country. Their packaging is fun, vibrant, and sustainable.
American Spoon from Michigan produces beautiful preserves using a lot of Michigan fruit. They also have a great line of grilling accompaniments including Maple and Cherry BBQ Sauces and relishes in Red Pepper, Caper & Dill, and Heirloom Tomato.
Bearded Brothers Energy Bars are made in Austin, Texas. We discovered this company at Expo West this year and loved the taste of the bars and the quality of the ingredients. We've carried Kate's Real Food Bars for years (we love Kate and her delicious, organic bars), but wanted to add another offering of a grab-and-go bar for hiking or in between classes.