Retail produce sales in the Phoenix and Las Vegas areas have been steady, according to produce vendors there, noting a balance of diverse constituencies.
“You need to be well-diversified in the items you’re carrying,” said Blair Hillman, owner of Kodiak Fresh Inc., a Phoenix-based wholesaler. “You’re clear across the board (among ethnicities); we have Asian consumption, Hispanic and your Southwest with the regular meat-and-potato.”
The retail market is “holding its own,” said Willie Itule, owner of Willie Itule Produce, Phoenix.
“They’ve seen slight improvements in the markets (in the wake of the recession),” he said.
Chains like Safeway, Albertsons, Walmart, Bashas, Fry’s and Whole Foods dominate the market in Phoenix.
Safeway, Albertsons, Walmart, Smith’s Food and Drug, Food 4 Less and Whole Foods are common on the Las Vegas produce landscape.
“The big chains have a pretty good control, to be honest,” Hillman said when asked about the presence of independent grocers. “It’s pretty difficult for the independent to come in here. I do see some smaller chains starting up and doing OK, but it’s hard to beat the big boys here.”
Hispanic grocery stores have been affected by stricter immigration laws in Arizona, some wholesalers noted.
“I think the biggest reduction in customer base in the Phoenix area is the Hispanic grocery stores have really taken a large reduction,” said John French, Produce Brokers of Arizona in Phoenix. “Between the fear of (Maricopa County Sheriff) Joe (Arpaio), and no building going on, there are a lot of things that have disappeared.”
But a balance of ethnic groups in both cities keeps suppliers busy, French noted.
“It’s so fragmented,” he said.
The Hispanic market remains strong, said John W. New, president of Grand Avenue Produce, Phoenix.
“We sell tons of tomatoes, chilies, everything under the sun, as far as the Hispanic market goes,” he said. “The Hispanic market in Phoenix and Tucson market is as big as it ever was and is getting bigger every day.”
A growing Asian population has enhanced the sales opportunities, New said.
“You have a huge Asian population in Arizona that really thrives on your broccolis, your celery, bok choi, napa — that sort of thing,” he said.
Even during tough economic times, retailers enjoy good business, New noted.
“People are always going to eat, and here they have a ton of options,” he said. “You’ve got the big guys going back and forth. You’ve got local chains and you throw your super Walmarts into the mix, and they’re all fighting for the same dime. I’d say Walmart is probably one of the biggest forces to reckon with, as far as retail produce goes.”
Stability is the main driver of the retail produce business, said Rick Crispo, partner in Phoenix-based Legend Distributing LLC.
“I think people are getting more comfortable with spending a few more impulse dollars in the grocery aisle, as opposed to just the bare necessities,” he said. “I think it goes hand in hand with our economy slowly but surely getting better.”
But wholesalers note both cities have one thing in common: big players.
“It’s chain-driven,” said Greg Bird, regional director for the Las Vegas market with Los Angeles-based Los Angeles & San Francisco Specialty Produce.
“It’s chain-driven,” he said.