From Point A to Point B: UNFI Chair Steve Spinner on the Future of Distribution

Author: Steven Hoffman
Source: This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Presence News

UNFI Chairman, President and CEO Steven Spinner was in Colorado recently to address the Naturally Boulder business community about the future of distribution in the natural, organic and “better for you” consumer products market. 

The takeaway: “It’s a good time to be in this space,” Spinner said. “We are one of the few industries other than tech that actually grows,” he said, noting that the natural and organic market is growing at 10% vs. 1% growth in conventional foods.

From left:  Mark Retzloff, Cofounder, Alfalfa’s Market; UNFI Chair Steve Spinner; and Carlotta Mast, SVP of Content, New Hope Network, and President, Naturally Boulder.

From left:  Mark Retzloff, Cofounder, Alfalfa’s Market; UNFI Chair Steve Spinner; and Carlotta Mast, SVP of Content, New Hope Network, and President, Naturally Boulder.

Yet, be prepared for change, Spinner encouraged. “Change is pretty good. The reality is those who have been in the natural products industry for a while have learned that in order to deal with all that growth, you’ve got to be comfortable with handling a great deal of change. Because UNFI is conservative, our balance sheet is conservative – we carry very little debt – and we can weather the changes,” he said.

Shifting Market Drivers

Among the drivers affecting the healthy lifestyles market, Spinner noted, “We are seeing consolidation among manufacturers and the maturation of retail. Also, consumer buying habits are shifting. People are living longer and buying homes and having children later. And with the growth of alternate channels, things are going to get more competitive, so be careful of the price you charge. The Internet has made everything more transparent,” he advised.

“For us, our margins have come down materially year over year – 80% of our volume is a cost-plus program of 10% or less. A common misconception is that we make all this margin on the backs of our suppliers, but that is not true. The way we achieve income growth is by becoming more efficient – we seek to reduce our costs further than our contracting margins,” Spinner shared.

While sales of natural and organic products are growing in mainstream stores such as WalMart, Costco, Kroger and others, “That’s not necessarily all bad because these stores are serving crossover shoppers, and then we get a committed natural and organic shopper,” he said.

At the helm of UNFI – the largest distributor of natural and organic products in North America, with more than $9 billion in annual sales – since 2008, Spinner has become widely recognized as one of the top distribution and logistics experts in the food industry. A publicly traded company (Nasdaq: UNFI), UNFI serves 43,000 customers in the U.S. and Canada from 33 distribution centers. 

The company recently reorganized itself into three regions: Pacific, Central and Atlantic. Additionally, Spinner noted, “In the past manufacturers had to deal with a number of different regions and policies were different. We have now shifted to a single Supplier Relationship Manager (SRM) system in which the manager works with the supplier on promotional schedules, product introductions, etc. We encourage brands to build a relationship with their SRM. Ask them for advice, for help in resolving issues with deductions, pricing, anything. Even though our managers have to respond to many brands, you might want to make the trip to visit your SRM. It can improve your relationship with UNFI dramatically,” he added.

Shift to the Perimeter

“About five years ago, we determined that the whole retail industry was going to shift from the center of store to the perimeter, that is, less space allocated to grocery and more allocation to dairy, deli and other perishables,” Spinner observed. “So we invested $500 million in refrigerated centers across the country. What we got wrong was the timing of the contraction in the center store – it happened a lot faster than we thought. Deli, produce, meat, frozen – these categories are all growing north of 9%. The perimeter is growing faster than the center of store.”

“The perimeter is growing faster than the center of the store,” noted UNFI Chair Steve Spinner. Source: UNFI.

“The perimeter is growing faster than the center of the store,” noted UNFI Chair Steve Spinner. Source: UNFI.

UNFI serves all aspects of a retail store, what it refers to as “Building out the Store,” through its complete catalog plus private label brands including Blue Marble, Haddon House, Woodstock Farms, Select Nutrition and others. For the perimeter, UNFI serves retailers through its subsidiaries Albert’s Organics, Tony’s Fine Foods and Gourmet Guru.

A recent acquisition, Honest Green, also provides UNFI with the ability to drop ship over 35,000 products on behalf of small and national retailers that want to offer a broader range of items beyond their shelves, plus other non-traditional accounts that want UNFI products.

Speaking of e-commerce, Spinner said, “I know sometimes our [private label] products end up on websites, and perhaps those e-tailers try to get a price advantage. We try to prevent that. But the truth of the matter is, e-commerce is here to stay and we plan to get into it in a bigger way. We have to embrace it, understand it, and figure out a way to make it work while also serving our brick and mortar customers and helping them with their online sales platforms,” Spinner said. “E-commerce is still less than 4% of what’s sold in the U.S. However, U.S. food sales at retail are close to a trillion dollars, so a percentage point can mean a lot.” 

UNFI Next: An Option for Emerging Brands

“Some would say that we’re a really big company and hard to do business with…but we are a really efficient company that gets product from point A to point B,” Skinner admitted. “However, we do believe we should treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves.”

For established national brands, UNFI’s fee-based ClearVue program converts a brand’s total distributor promotional spend into one flat rate – “No more deduction surprises, and a tremendous amount of portal information available,” said Spinner, who reported that close to 100 suppliers currently participate in the ClearVue program.

UNFI Next Logo.png

For smaller companies, UNFI launched this past year its “UNFI Next” program to help bring smaller, innovative brands into its distribution system, working with a new team that curates and incubates emerging brands not currently in distribution. According to UNFI’s blog announcing the program, the product and brand criteria to define an emerging brand for UNFI Next include:

     • Brands/Products that disrupt their category

     • Products that are on-trend with key industry/category trends

     • New or break-through product entries to the market

“We realized we had gotten too big for some small suppliers, so we are excited about UNFI Next to find and on-board new and emerging brands,” said Spinner. “We are opening UNFI Next centers one DC (Distribution Center) at a time – Denver was recently added as a new UNFI Next center. This enables us to build and extend our pipeline to offer fast growing and exciting brands to our customers. When it works, we hand off the brand from UNFI Next to UNFI.”

To learn if your brand qualifies for UNFI Next, Spinner recommended contacting the appropriate regional Supplier Relationship Manager (SRM). To find contact info, visit here: http://yourbrandsmatter.com/srm-contacts/. You can also learn more about the UNFI Next program at UNFI’s Blog, October 2016 edition, here: http://unfisupplierupdate.blogspot.com/2016/.

Finally, in working with a distributor, Spinner cautioned that the reason suppliers may fail is when they think just getting into the distribution system is the “be all, end all.” Once the SRM places an order, that’s only the beginning, he said. “It’s your responsibility to sell it, get it placed, and get it off the shelf. We will work with you to help promote your brands, but again, I encourage you to build your relationship with your SRM. We also are committed to working with evolving retail stores that are responding to the needs of the future retail marketplace.”

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Steven Hoffman is Managing Director of Compass Natural, a full service agency dedicated to Public Relations, brand marketing, digital communications, social media, and strategic business development in the healthy lifestyles market for natural, organic, regenerative and eco-friendly products and services. Contact steve@compassnatural.com.