Grocery Importer Unites Staff For Competitive Advantage

I prefer to work with small businesses simply because it makes me happy to support a local company. I get to know the company and they know me. I love it when I go into my favorite cooking store and the owner greets me and tells me about a product she just got in that she knows I’ll like. I enjoy going to major league games, but I have more fun at a AAA game where the players know their fans. I’m even willing to pay a little more for the relationship or expertise. That said, it all breaks down if the business can’t service my needs. When phone calls aren’t returned or a project drags out because they are under-resourced or lacking tools, I feel forced to go to a bigger company.

Multinational corporations have access to financial, human and legal resources that are simply out of reach for small local based businesses, but that doesn’t mean that they are untouchable. It does mean that small business owners need to be resourceful in their approach to the market.

The import/export industry is a good example of this situation. The logistics of shipping product internationally are astounding. These challenges are multiplied when your product is perishable and subject to constant price fluctuations. As is the case with Fresh Direct Produce Ltd. in Vancouver B.C. This independent produce importer relies on their Cisco Unified Communications Manager Business Edition based communications system to make sure employees never miss a call.

Fresh Direct Produce imports fruits and vegetables from all over the world with a focus on Asian produce (such as the amazing mangosteen they allowed me to sample). Their location in Vancouver is on a veritable “produce row.” As I drove to their company I passed many global competitors, which sparked the question, “How do they compete?”

As soon as I got out of my car, the answer was apparent. By delivering personalized service. They had a very attractive display of their available produce and samples for buyers to taste, but more importantly, their staff knew all their customers’ needs. As I watched Fresh Direct employees interact with customers the established personal relationships were clear. They remembered past orders, likes and dislikes, and used them to guide their customers. Essentially they delivered superior service.

I sat down with CEO and co-founder, Davis Yung, to get his insight on how Fresh Direct Produce managed to stay competitive against the big guys. He boiled it down to three things: 1) focusing on a specific market; 2) delivering superior service and 3) investing in the company.

The leadership at Fresh Direct Produce understands that larger chain stores are most likely to purchase from global produce operations where they can set blanket contracts, so Fresh Direct Produce focuses on the underserved market in their area — the small local grocery store. They developed personal relationships with the shop owners and with their suppliers.

As the company grew, their employees needed to travel more frequently to places like California and Asia where the produce was grown. These trips helped them cultivate relationships with growers and establish quality and pricing. The catch was that the travel made it difficult for employees to stay in touch with the main office and with customers.

Also as the business grew, the systems weren’t meeting their needs, processes needed to change but technology also needed to change. They needed to create an environment where staff could be in constant contact with each other, customers and suppliers without incurring excessive cell phone bills or risking the safety of their corporate data.

They decided to invest in their voice and data network. By providing their employees tools like single number reach, caller ID, VPN and personalized voice mail, they not only made their employees’ jobs easier (because they spent less time doing the same tasks) but they also made it easier for customers to immediately reach key personnel when needed. Further, because everyone is in constant contact, employees can reach each other. Account reps can reach buyers immediately to address a customer need. If prices change buyers can immediately notify the account reps.

Davis summed it up nicely, “In my business an orange is an orange, but service is what sets us apart. Investing is our communications has allowed us to deliver service that surpasses our competitors and is helping us grow.” He believes that investing in technology enabled Fresh Direct Produce to grow to the next level and is thrilled he made the investment in his company.

Is it time to look at your systems?

Dawn Brister, Editorial Director of Cisco Innovators Forum, and her team of guest bloggers interviews experts, entrepreneurs and authors on how to run a small business better. To learn more about small business best practices and the technologies behind them, visit