Pamela RiemenschneiderBentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. launched new Fresh Produce Schools for more than 70,000 associates as part of a new effort to improve its fresh produce image with consumers. Just a few months after coming under scrutiny for out of stocks and poor execution in its fresh produce department, Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. launched a campaign and initiatives, aimed at consumers, touting improvements to its fresh produce.
The company held a media call June 3 to roll out the initiatives, including promoting its “100% money back guarantee” for fresh produce purchases, efforts to reduce transit time from farms to stores through satellite buying offices, more direct grower relationships, training for in-store employees and weekly produce checks at more than 3,000 stores.
The initiatives are supported with a nationwide ad campaign about Wal-Mart’s fresh produce.
Jack Sinclair, executive vice president of grocery for Wal-Mart U.S. said the company is “cutting out the middleman” and buying more produce direct, including being on track for increasing local produce sourcing by 50% over the next several years.
The company still plans to source from local wholesalers, however.
“The other 20% will be through local wholesalers — those wholesalers play an important role for us in the areas we serve,” he said.
Buying direct from growers and offering guarantees on produce are nothing new for major retailers — including Wal-Mart — said Bruce Peterson of Peterson Insights Inc., a former Wal-Mart produce executive. Where Wal-Mart could make the most positive changes in Wal-Mart’s fresh produce comes with in-store execution in the produce departments themselves, Peterson said.
Wal-Mart appears to be addressing those issues through its new Fresh Produce Schools, what Sinclair said would be “visual” training programs for more than 70,000 associates on appropriate produce handling procedures and expectations of product freshness. This will help employees identify what produce belongs on the shelf and what needs to be removed, Sinclair said.
These training programs will be backed up with independent weekly fresh produce checks for more than 3,000 stores.
The Fresh Produce School is a great idea, Peterson said, depending on execution.
“I think that’s inherently a good thing,” he said. “But I wonder who are the people they’re going to train. Wal-Mart historically has been a company of generalists. They never really applied any specific product training in the way you would think that a conventional retailer would do.”
Wal-Mart could face challenges because training could mean specialization.
“From a union standpoint, Wal-Mart has always said we don’t have specialized departments,” he said. “People may do some tasks within stores but they’re all essentially trained the same.”
David Livingston of DJL Research, Pewaukee, Wis., is skeptical of the initiatives. The Fresh Produce School could be no more than a 15-minute seminar in the break room, he said.
“Remember, this is Wal-Mart we are talking about,” he said. “My guess is this is more for the press release, annual meeting … etc. … and to deflect attention from flat sales and bribery scandals. Wal-Mart has a lot to overcome with its perishables reputation.”
Changes boil down to in-store execution, Peterson said.
“I think their buyers do a reasonably good job for the size of the company,” he said. “Then when they try to execute it at store level, it becomes a whole other thing.”