Competitive retail market keeps New York distributors moving

The retail landscape in the largest U.S. metropolitan region never stands still.

Produce wholesalers say the region remains competitive, which helps expand produce sales.

"The retail segment is changing," said Bruce Klein, director of marketing for Maurice A. Auerbach Inc., Secaucus, N.J. "With A&P out of the deal, there's a jockeying of position. Acme, Food Town, Stop & Shop and the Shop-Rites took some of the stores, so we have a little bit of change in the landscape and have some new retailers coming into the market. It's a very competitive area."

In 2015, the Montvale, N.J.-based Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., went bankrupt and sold stores.

The area has seen many changes in the retail sector, said Joe Granata, director of produce sales for West Caldwell, N.J.-based FreshPro Food Distributors.

"A&P's going out, as well as Pathmark and Food Emporium, has created a lot more business for us," he said. "Existing customers picked up a lot of business because the supermarkets were near them. Some of the existing customers opened new stores or bought some of the closed stores. The retail landscape has really changed."

Today's Malvern, Pa.-based Acme Markets Inc. stores are different than those in the past and Rochester-based Wegmans Food Markets Inc. entering the region should help ramp up the competition, Granata said.

Retail sales haven't been impressive, said Mike Muzyk, president of Baldor Specialty Foods Inc.

"I would say the retail level is flat," he said. "Some are growing, some are flat and some are losing. The industry as a whole - I would say it's consistently flat."

Changes, including the disappearance of A&Ps and Fairway Markets operating out of bankruptcy, cloud the retail future, Muzyk said.

Changing buying specs have helped retailers sell more quality produce, said Sheldon Nathel, vice president of Nathel & Nathel Inc.

"The stores are doing well and are handling better product," he said. "They're really looking for more premium quality fruits and vegetables. It's become a little harder to sell the distressed product because people want better product, even the cheapest guys in the deal."

The region's supermarket sector sees many players vying for consumer dollars.

"This is a very competitive retail scene," said Alfie Badalamenti, vice president of Coosemans New York Inc. "You get more shoppers coming into the stores now that the weather is getting better in the spring. The stores do a good job merchandising their fruits and vegetables."

Despite the intense competition, Badalamenti characterizes business in the area's retail landscape as quiet or consistent.

The Hunts Point Terminal Market remains important for many of the area's retailers and distributors sell to a variety of retailers, from the small to the large, said Paul Armata, vice president of E. Armata Inc.

"Many come here and they buy for themselves or they have brokers representing them," he said. "As merchants, we all share the same customers. There's always a new store opening."

Retail business has remained strong, said Jeff Young, a buyer for A&J Produce Corp.

"The Northeast does a good job in merchandising," he said. "You have your Shop-Rites, the Stop & Shops and the Acmes. The independents do a good job, but I see retailers in general doing a better job merchandising fruits and vegetables."

Merchandising varies by retailer, said Steve Koster, mushroom department and marketing and advertising for E. Armata Inc.

"It depends on the retailer," he said. "Some are better than others. Some put more effort into it and erect big displays, which you see in the display competitions with potatoes, mangoes and avocados. We work with the retailers to help them push product on ad."

Wegman's market entrance bodes well for the sector.

"They are putting a few stores in New Jersey and they do a great job," said Ciro Porricelli, partner with Jerry Porricelli Produce. "They focus on convenience and prepared foods."

A.J. Trucco Inc. sells to retail and wholesale customers throughout the U.S. but mostly on the East Coast and in the Midwest.

"Retailers are doing well," said Sasha LoPresti, director of business development. "I think they are competitive about the way they do things."

In the past, retail customers accounted for 10% of Holtsville, N.Y.-based J. Kings Foodservice Professionals Inc.'s business.

Today, the retail segment has increased to 24%, said Joel Panagakos, salesman.

"There are so many businesses today that are being run by the numbers guys, especially on the retail side of things, who don't have the flair for what it has taken all these years for a produce department to look like a produce department in stores," he said. "The ones that will survive are the ones that identify the need to make the numbers work but which also has to look powerful and attractive and speaks out and the message it sends to shoppers is 'Take me home.'"