Armand Lobato, The Produce Aisle
Armand Lobato, The Produce Aisle

The produce department is unique.

Unfortunately, some neglect to fully appreciate this fact. Many times a store director regards the produce clerk as interchangeable as any other.

Often, under the guise of “We’re a total-store operation,” they plug in a grocery or dairy clerk into a produce schedule.

Likewise, the store manager has no qualms about pulling a produce clerk to cover a bakery break or man the check stand to catch up on breaks or to alleviate the morning doughnut rush, the lunch rush or the dinner rush.

The service-oriented store director makes a fatal flaw in this way of thinking. Service extends to areas besides the cashier post. Service includes having produce clerks stocking and interacting with customers.

Besides in produce, rarely do customers benefit from having an available clerk. The product among the thousands of linear feet of paper and canned goods speak for themselves. Customers read pricing, product and nutrition labels. It doesn’t matter much if the product is Greek yogurt or shoestrings.

Not so with perishables, especially fresh produce.

What makes produce different? Choose a commodity and discuss it with any knowledgeable produce manager or clerk. To the store director (or consumer), a display of grapes may be indistinguishable from one month to another. It’s not so simple, as we know.

In fact, every commodity has a distinct, seasonal life cycle. Each deal has a beginning, middle and an end. The grapes in question now, for example, are entering the California deal. We see grapes progress in available varieties and by mid-July they are at the peak of their respective cycle.

As summer wanes and the California deal winds down, the green grapes (once picture-perfect) become fragile. They arrive in protective packaging. Bunches are frequently wrapped to minimize shatter. The color has an amber cast.

But these grapes “eat like candy,” as produce people like to quip.

Usually, it’s only the seasoned produce person who knows these things. They share this with consumers, who might hesitate buying at the end of the deal. Produce clerks prove their point by offering a sample. They not only handle customers carefully, but they handle the produce differently too. They know at this point that extra care is required. Produce managers who ordered grapes aggressively in midsummer order much closer in early fall.

All this, just for one item.

At any given point a full-service produce operation carries hundreds of items. Each commodity has its ebbs and flows. It’s important that produce departments have all the necessary tools and consideration to succeed, including keeping clerks at their posts to maintain the highest quality standards, stock levels and customer service.

Armand Lobato works for the Idaho Potato Commission. His 30 years of experience in the produce business span a range of foodservice and retail positions.

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