Profile: David Churchill, Vice President of Merchandising, Wonderful Sales, The Wonderful Co.
David Churchill brought a long history of produce merchandising to The Wonderful Co. when he joined in 2008. He began his career with nearly a quarter-century as produce manager and then assistant store manager at Vons Grocery. He then became national director of merchandising at Ready Pac Foods, and he later worked at Advantage Sales/Marketing. The Wonderful Co. hired him to oversee merchandising for their brands, which include Fiji Water and Wonderful Halos, almonds and pistachios.
What are your current responsibilities at The Wonderful Co.?
CHURCHILL: I’m responsible for the day-to-day operations and strategic planning of the entire merchandising team for North America. For Wonderful sales, that’s conventional grocery in America and Canada, but also the merchandising aspect for Walmart and Sam’s. Our whole program is designed to run synergistically with our brand teams and marketing teams. While the teams design brand message, focus and direction, we bring them insights from the field. Then it’s on us to execute company programs at retail. We’re responsible for bringing that brand message to life at the point-of-purchase.
Structurally, how does the merchandising arm of your company interact with shopper marketing and with insights?
CHURCHILL: Our team supports the items in the produce sections of conventional grocery: pistachios and almonds, juices, and Halos. Our interaction with the brand marketing and insights team is pretty collaborative. We have 175 merchandisers around the country. At any given time, they’re carrying with them a carload of POS materials, merchandising materials, popup bins and side trays. We seem to have something for everybody.
How does your company define success for its in-store marketing programs?
CHURCHILL: It’s about having something that will resonate with our buyer, wherever she’s at. We’re finding out what’s important to decision makers at store level, asking a lot of questions, finding out what programs they’re looking for, what’s going to make them successful. And then bringing them ideas that fit in with where they want to go. When you start thinking about what defines success, ultimately we’re going to define that by sales, and whether what we’re doing is resonating with our buyers. Wonderful pistachios are the top-selling snack nut and Halos are the top-selling citrus item in the U.S. You can’t argue with that kind of success.
How has the emergence of the omnichannel shopper influenced your merchandising?
CHURCHILL: I don’t think it’s changed how we merchandise too much because our shoppers and brand shoppers in general are really loyal shoppers. We try to have as many points of interaction as we can. Then that might lead to “Oh yeah, I saw those pistachios on my Instagram feed.” We also try to get on the perimeter of the store. It’s all about that impulse purchase. I don’t think it’s changed how we merchandise, but it’s brought to life the fact that how we merchandise is that much more effective for us.
What have been the main trends in merchandising in recent years?
CHURCHILL: More and more, it’s about that perimeter of the store, it’s about fresh and it’s about the healthy items. Store formats have changed because of it. Each year, more and more consumers are listening to that message and shopping the perimeter of the store. It’s changed how vendors and manufacturers see the need to get on that perimeter in some way and not be confined to those shelves in the middle. It’s creating many smaller players and formats that focus in that direction. The other thing is the continued focus on the plant-based shopper. They’re in the produce department. Produce is becoming the prime place to be. If anything, produce continues to grow and become the major focus.
What role do you foresee the physical store playing in the future?
CHURCHILL: In the end, especially with fresh, shoppers want to see it, touch it, smell it, feel it. There are many consumers switching to buying some online groceries for things in packages and bags. That’s going to continue to grow. But they will want to get to the store and their farmer’s market when it comes to fresh produce, which is good for us, because that’s where we tend to play.
CHURCHILL: I was the very first person hired in Wonderful sales. The whole direct team was a concept. They asked me to put together this pilot program in Los Angeles, which started with five employees, 10 years ago. We ran that pilot program for five months, decided it was successful and spent the next 18 months rolling the program out around the country. We were hiring people, bringing them back to L.A. for training and then sending them back into the field. By the end of that, we had built a national direct merchandising program where we didn’t have one before. We were still developing the Wonderful brand of pistachios. Today, when you say “pistachios,” you think Wonderful. Our merchandising team was intimately involved in helping that grow, in bringing that package front and center to the consumer.
CHURCHILL: One of the things we decided to do two years ago was venture into Walmart/Sam’s Club for the first time. That was different for us. We looked at how could we make our program more efficient and decided we could fold it into our existing foundation with as small an initial investment of labor as possible. We grew our actual store calls we were doing a year by 35%, with less than 5% added labor. That allowed us to get out of the broker model at Walmart and transition into a direct program. Sales have continued to grow and grow. We were able to save the company money and continue growing sales in two of the most important channels. We were able to leverage what we had built to make it as efficient as possible for the company.