Retail produce movement in Philadelphia as well as the Northeast keeps cooking.

Produce distributors on the Philadelphia Produce Wholesale Market characterize the business as strong and highly competitive.

International customers remain big buyers on the market and many individuals are starting stores, said Chip Wiechec, president of Philadelphia-based Hunter Bros. Inc.

Smaller entrepreneurs, the ones that open single stores, are sprouting in the City of Brotherly Love, he said.

“People are looking for things to do (starting retail businesses),” Wiechec said.

“Produce is a relatively easy way to get into business for yourself. This is helping the market move more produce, which strengthens the produce economy in general, not just our physical market.”

Wiechec said those business starters tend to be Hispanics, though many hail from Africa.

Area retailers, including larger chains, are changing the way they purchase perishables, said Mark Levin, co-owner of Philadelphia-based M. Levin & Co. Inc.

Those chains are decentralizing buying decisions from their out-of-state corporate offices, he said.

“Some local retailers are getting much more aggressive,” Levin said.

“A lot of the stores we do business with, they’re leaving it more to the store or produce manager to make the final decisions on if something has to be reduced or if they need to order more. Their managers walk the counters day and night and when they see something wrong, replace or remove the item. That’s where the money is made in staying on top of the product.”

An effective distributor helps its customers better compete in the marketplace, said Mike Maxwell, president of Procacci Bros. Sales Corp., Philadelphia.

Procacci’s sales staff helps write store ads, supports those ads through product availability and provides retailers daily support in delivery and merchandising, he said.

“We give them the opportunity to compete against the bigger companies,” Maxwell said.

“These independents are doing really well. A lot of these four to five stores are individually owned. They know their customers quite well and the items their customers are looking for. By supplying them the tools they need at competitive prices, they get better buying power, which helps them better compete.”

Supermarkets in the Northeast are becoming more competitive in their merchandising, said Todd Penza, salesman with Pinto Bros. Inc., Philadelphia.

“I think the retailers are getting more aggressive. I’m not sure what they’re doing differently, but they seem to be more into promotions. This market is very competitive,” he said.

Smart retailers keep on top of their produce departments, said Ron Carkoski, president and CEO of Four Seasons Produce Inc. in Ephrata, Pa.

“Those retailers that are paying attention and really working to understand the value they need to supply their customers are doing very well,” he said.

“The retailers that are complacent in their approach to the business are probably seeing flat to slightly decreasing sales.”

Carkoski said effective retail produce merchandisers must remain cognizant of what current and prospective shoppers are seeking.

The smaller format stores, including convenience stores, are perceptive of their customers’ needs and interest in health and are the ones experiencing growth, he said.

Retail demand for specialties is also growing.

“Our retail business is strong,” said John Vena Jr., president of John Vena Inc., Philadelphia.

“Our strength is with the independents, particularly those in certain ethnic communities. We have seen nice growth. Some of those customers are growing and are allowing us to grow with them.”

Coosemans Philadelphia Inc. distributes specialties to retailers as well as sells to retailers and others that visit the market.

“It looks like the retailers here are doing OK,” said Martin Roth, secretary-treasurer. “It seems like they’re expanding or holding their own.”