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

In every business, a question sometimes arises: Who is your customer?

In retail, everyone is your customer.

This came to mind recently when speaking to a friend, a produce buyer in Seattle. He mentioned he had a relative who worked as a bread jobber (a third-party vendor contractor who travels among assigned stores within a chain, stocking the vendor’s product).

For all sorts of reasons, mostly petty, sometimes these folks get the cold shoulder from regular store employees. These employees can be uncooperative, are slow to allow the jobber to use equipment and generally treat them like second-class citizens.

I’ve seen it many times. It’s not only bad manners. It’s poor business.

That’s because as a produce manager or clerk, everyone that you meet, even in the bowels of loading docks or stock rooms is a potential customer: truck drivers, salespeople, temporary sample-clerks, jobbers, even the contingents of inventory people (the ones you see every quarter-end or so wearing the blue smocks).

Yup. All these people are worthy of your courtesy. For no matter what color collar they wear during their shift, at the end of the day that person is more than likely pushing a cart shopping for dinner.

The danger of mistreating the person behind the scenes (or anyone you meet for that matter) is that as a potential customer, you may be unwittingly distancing yourself and damaging relationships you can ill afford to lose. Especially in a social media world. Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of once said, “If someone thinks they are being mistreated, they won’t tell 5 people, they’ll tell 5,000.”

How important is a single consumer? Right behind a person’s rent or mortgage payment, is what they spend on groceries. Twenty years ago, our chain figured that every person who walks into a grocery store is valued at around $8,000 in yearly sales. I suspect that over the years with inflation, that figure has gone up a couple thousand dollars.

Ten grand. That includes every person you come in contact with, front door or otherwise.

Truth is, you can’t have enough friends in this crazy business. While we’re fortunate that we live by the adage “Everyone has to eat,” what’s missing is that everyone has a choice where to spend their food dollars. Drive down any street and within a few minutes of passing one grocer chances are pretty good you’ll bump into their competitor.

One of the things that sets one grocer apart from another is how those customers are treated.

Every customer’s business must be earned. Seek them out and win them over, even especially in unfamiliar places.

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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