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

I’ve spoken to a few produce directors over the years about the topic discussed in last week’s column.

In case you missed it, the subject was about allowing produce managers the freedom to merchandise their departments as they see fit. This, as opposed to most chains that issue strict merchandising schematics that account for every square inch of a produce department.

I suggested that such schematics, while giving a chain a set of merchandising standards, also detract from produce managers’ creative talents. Or in other words, such standards take the fun out of the job.

You have to admit, some parts of the produce department benefits from set plans. Take the value-added, multideck refrigerated shelving for example. Items such as packaged salads, refrigerated dressings, cut fruit, mushrooms and herbs don’t change much throughout the year, so a uniform set makes sense.

Even the merchandising on the green or wet racks doesn’t vary. Walking down a veg rack in January isn’t too different from July, except for price differences, some availability changes or facing adjustments.

Maintaining the ‘look’

Those produce directors appreciate their exceptional managers but generally disallow merchandising freedom. They say it’s a matter of maintaining standards.

A master plan dictates that no matter what store a customer shops the “look” is relatively the same: The same orange endcap up front, the same layout on the refrigerated cases and space allocations of every single item in a carefully orchestrated layout. The directors insist this helps with inventory control and ensures produce managers are carrying all required items.

No argument here. Those are pretty good reasons to maintain the status quo.

Experienced stand-outs

However, it seems every chain has a certain group of superstar produce merchandisers. These are perhaps 10% of every chain. They’re the managers who build representative ad displays and who consistently win display contests — the group that typically is recruited to set up a new store or to help with a remodel project.

These produce managers usually (but not always) have been around for 10-plus years. They manage the most challenging or busiest stores. When someone of influence comes to town, the produce director suggests they visit a superstar store.

They say, “Check out store No. 24 — she runs an outstanding department.”

These are the produce managers that as a produce director I would suggest loosening the merchandising reins.

I’d instill a merchandising framework to stay within, but would allow them the freedom to merchandise the bulk of their department. I’d call these the research and development stores.

Reaching this freedom level would act both as an incentive for the junior produce managers to aspire to, as well as providing a reward and showing a level of confidence in the senior superstars to, you know, strut their stuff.

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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