Mid-volume departments keep the industry humming

02/28/2012 10:08:00 AM
Armand Lobato

An old produce merchandiser pal recently asked me, “Just who is the audience you write to?”
A fair question. (And a pretty smart one too, coming from a guy who spends his days evaluating produce departments and rooting around in cold, damp coolers.)
“It all depends,” I answered. (This answer isn’t as smart so much as it is elusive.)
Produce departments come in all shapes and sizes. I was nosing around a big department store the other day that had a tiny produce department. The format was one 4-foot by 8-foot dry table and an adjacent twenty feet of refrigerated case space.
“Is this the whole produce department?” I asked the clerk, who was quickly stocking a couple cases.
“Sure is,” she said. “You’d be surprised how much volume we pump out of this operation.”
Many times when a produce manager begins his or her career, it is in a similar, low-volume store.
This can also be one of the toughest types of stores to manage. I told my merchandiser friend that I tried to keep this in mind for the Produce Aisle topics, since early in my career I managed low-volume stores to start, too. Sometimes I only had two people on any given day to work the department — myself included. I used to joke that if I made a mistake, that I would be the one to give myself a good talking-to.
Eventually, I was fortunate to help manage some of the big produce departments.
We called these stores the flagships — a chain might only have a handful — being among the newest, with the greatest square-footage and the best fixtures, that enjoyed heaps of customer traffic and associated volume. 
It takes years in most produce managers’ careers to be entrusted with this level, but it’s worth working toward. A large department is almost always satisfying. More labor and flexibility mean a wider range to merchandise and experiment.
But these extremes (stores and produce managers) are the exception.
Mostly, my mind’s eye gravitates to the mid-volume produce manager and to the merchandiser that oversees these operations. 
These produce departments are neither a one-man operation nor the behemoth flagships. The median-range is the format I see on a consistent basis. 
This level of produce manager usually has an assistant, with about six clerks to manage. This manager is responsible for 3,000-6,000 square feet of sales floor space, and typically has to wear many hats daily in some way (be it jumping in to help other departments, unload trucks or other activities).
For this scribe, these words are usually aimed toward this audience: the majority of the industry that, for the most part, keeps the produce wheels spinning.
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. 
armandlobato@comcast.net
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