Retailing’s Unsung Heroes

Retailing’s Unsung Heroes

Last month marked the beginning of my 40th year in the international transportation and trade industry. When I started that first job in January 1971, I had some thought it would be temporary: I had a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and figured I’d eventually get a job reflecting that line of study — maybe teaching, maybe research — but at least something more related to my education than this transportation thing. Besides, no one I knew had any more information about this line of work than I did. What was this all about anyway?

Bear in mind container ships back then were pretty small, averaging less than 2,500 TEUs per vessel, and had only recently begun to move larger volumes of cargo. The U.S. didn’t even recognize China, so Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Europe were much more important sources of freight.

There were relatively few sources of information available about cargo movement, and importers and exporters were only barely familiar with containers and the new methods of shipping that would result from their introduction. Wal-Mart had opened its first store in Arkansas in 1962, incorporated in 1969 and only operated in half a dozen states by 1972 — nothing like the 700,000-plus containers they bring into America today!

It has been amazing to work in this business over these four decades, to watch it grow and change, and I have become something of a transportation and logistics geek because of it. While never much of a shopper, I admit to enjoying walking the aisles of a clothing, department or grocery store and, rather than buying anything, just looking at the labels of the clothes, bottles or packages to check where they originated.

As I’m taking this mental journey — speculating on the process the retailer used to get the products to the shelves — I’m also aware that virtually no one else in the store has any idea of the complex set of operations and the large number of people and companies involved to make this happen. Whether it’s a Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Target, Foot Locker, Fred Meyer grocery store, or any of the dozens of stores any of us pass through, there is an invisible set of behind-the-scenes processes that makes buying and selling possible — processes that we, dear readers and friends, have created, defined, refined, customized, improved and continue to manage and evolve.

And so it was during a vacation to Hawaii last month that my wife and I found ourselves in the small Maui town of Pa’ia, a few miles south of Kahului, where we happened upon the Mana Foods Market. Having read the name in a guidebook, in we went. At the end of more than an hour, we had purchased a few items, but had a great time just the same wandering the aisles. In fact, I found the store so interesting and the variety of items so remarkable that I called the store a few days later to see if they would speak with me about how they managed to get so much stuff into so little space and how they managed the logistics.

To my delight, Sunette Fenn, one of Mana Foods’ founders, was generous enough to take 30 or 40 minutes of her time to speak with me about the business, especially the logistics. Just for some perspective: The Mana Foods store is about 6,500 square feet, and the company has an order book of some 30,000 items that appear on the shelves. According to the Food Marketing Institute, the average size of a grocery store in America was 46,755 square feet in 2008 and stocked approximately 47,000 items. It’s worth noting Hawaii is the most isolated island chain in the world; Maui’s population was 143,574 in 2008, and Pa’ia is very small.

So how does Mana Foods do it? The specifics — no direct imports, a large number of distributor suppliers, dedicated staff, and constant attention to customer wants and needs — are less important than the fact it does it and has been doing it every day, every week, every month, for more than 25 years; and to be sure, without the awareness of virtually all of their customers — except, of course, for the random visit of a geek from the mainland.

Thanks, Sunette, I appreciate your time and the Mana Foods story. Your copy of this column will be on its (electronic) way to you soon.

Barry Horowitz is the principal at CMS Consulting Services. He can be contacted at 503-208-2232, or at