Did anyone ever ask the Shelf Stocker? (About handling fluid milk, that is)

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Did anyone ever ask the Shelf Stocker?  When it comes to milk cartons, that is.

It’s been a busy past few months for dairy farmers and dairy industry associates all over the United States.  Whether it’s called conference or summit or convention,  dairy folks across the United States have been in session after session in the months from November to March, sometimes (often!) referred to as “Meetin’ Season.”

I can’t remember a session for the past few years where the term ‘innovation’ hasn’t been used.  Sometimes, the term refers to new dairy products, but it is used equally as much in reference in packaging and handling for milk and other dairy products.

Balancing the costs associated with bringing milk and milk products to market along with visual elements which attract consumer purchases is like walking a high-wire across the Grand Canyon.  With dependable fluid milk sales losing market share to the ‘newest and shiny’ dairy toy, every level of the supply chain is in perpetual review.

On the way back to the ‘home office’ after one of those winter dairy meetings,  I stopped by a grocery store to grab some milk. (Whole milk, if you must know, and a brand in a yellow jug which I know comes from many farms in my area).

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As I often do, I just stood there evaluating the dairy case – fluid milk.  There were private label commodity milks from far away (over the ‘within 400 miles “Local” definition’ in the 2008 Farm Bill), a branded local milk, high-margin blended milks, and fake milks which are trying to convince consumers they are better than real, whole, milk.  Additionally, all of the ‘fakes’ (aka plant-based beverages) do nothing for farms and the farm economy in our southeast area of the US;  the crops or products used in them cannot be traced to a farm in the southeast.

While I was looking at the case, a very pleasant young man, the stocker clerk for the evening, brought out several cases of the yellow jug to place in the shelves.  Those yellow jugs are delivered in the plastic, open top milk crates which are as popular for home decor as for milk deliveries.

He then brought out some of the far-away jugs shipped in brown cardboard cases. In many dairy discussions with farmers, industry folks indicate that the brown cardboard is preferable to the traditional crates. Notice I said ‘industry folks.’

So, I just asked the clerk, a young man on the front line of consumer connections and milk sales,  if he would answer a question for me, and he politely said “Sure, if I can, ma’am.”

My question to the stocker:  From your perspective, do you prefer the cardboard carton, or the plastic milk crate?

The stocker clerk’s response was this: “I prefer the plastic crates.  For one thing, they are sturdier than the cardboard.  And also, their open top saves me time – I don’t have to cut open and fold cardboard boxes for bundling. I just reach in and get cartons and put them on the shelf.”

He went on to tell me of several times the cardboard cartons had weak spots in them, and extra care was required in handling.  He even had a cardboard carton break open one time, and jugs of milk fell out, crashed open, and milk went everywhere – including all over him.  (Anyone who’s had milk spill on them can identify with the dilemma, why you want to get it cleaned up quickly, and the extra time it takes to make sure you get all of it!)

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His response made sense to me – lots of sense, actually.  And anyone who has ever figured ‘time as money’ is likely to think it makes sense, too.  Those plastic milk crates actually still have some positives, and we need to remember that. They are appreciated by some folks, and their reasons make common sense. (Not to mention the physical benefits, since you get a bit of a workout while moving those cartons!)

In a society where we far too often see those on the frontlines of any type of ‘work’  never asked what they think about a situation, it is all too believable, too.

Has anyone ever considered the perspective of stocker clerks everywhere who do the actual work of getting milk on shelves, or has anyone ever done a ‘study’ or survey about what they would recommend?  Should their thoughts count on what is best for fluid milk and helping it re-gain traction?

The concept of moving more fluid milk is on smart dairy people’s minds, because it is generally the product which can be brought to market most quickly and at the least cost. For years, it has been the predominant product and ‘cash cow’ of the dairy processing industry – and it is being left behind in promotion and other aspects of cost of bringing milk to market.

Some have predicted that there may be a recession in 2020 at some point, and if that does happen, are we prepared to see dairy product prices decline by 20-40%? 

If comsumer pocketbooks are stretched by a recession, which category of milk sales will decline the fastest?  Will it be those higher priced milks, or even the fake milks / alternative beverages?  Or would such an event drive consumers back to basic milks, which are nutritional powerhouses in their own right?

There are many thoughts and opinions on how to best move more or recapture fluid milk, and there are many thoughts on which of the many attributes of whole milk are the best and should be promoted the most.  (That is another discussion for another post, or yet another convention to attend!)

But for now the question is: How often do we really consider the opinion of those who are actually doing the ‘physical work’ on getting milk to consumers?  If the “Learn by Doing” motto of 4-H is true, then there is much wisdom in all of the clerks who have ever placed milk on a shelf!  And I’m betting they’ve spoken with many consumers along the way, too.

I, like many have more questions than answers, and there are others who will say that other means of milk movement have their own merits.

I’m not suggesting companies which use the cardboard cartons change their way of doing things – that obviously works for them, and any company which sells fluid milk is a benefit to dairy farmers everywhere!  One of those in particular, another which serves a lot of southeast dairy farms, is about an hour from my location.

But I will say that a simple question asked of a pleasant young man sure gave me a new perspective.  I learned a lesson, and the conversation  made me think about things a bit differently.  I hope it’s made you think, too.

And ‘thinking differently’ – on all levels of people along the supply chain – is the first step to a brighter milk tomorrow.  The dairy industry is desperately searching for that brighter tomorrow.

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