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

Want your produce department to shine? I mean, really rock? Then get busy.

I shopped at two produce departments of the same chain this past week. The one closest to my house (I call it “my” store) certainly provides the convenience factor. I zip in, zip out. Because it is a lower-volume store, there’s rarely a crowd. My only gripe is with the perishables. I have to dig for a loaf of bread that doesn’t expire the next day.

Same thing goes for other perishables. I sort through the milk shelves for the best sell-buy dates. I’m suspicious when selecting fresh meat too. When the heaping, mark-down bin holds more than the one-layer of fresh offerings, I hesitate. I also buy the bare minimum.

The same is true for produce in “my” store. The freshness factor and selection isn’t nearly as sharp as the other store that takes 15 minutes of additional driving. In my conveniently located store, I buy only the bare minimum — a bunch of bananas, an onion, or a head of lettuce.

In fact, when someone asks me what chain has the freshest produce, I tell them that it isn’t necessarily the chain, as much as the individual store that makes the difference.

I advise them to buy from the busiest grocery store they can find. The theory is simple: More business means greater inventory turnover. To explain this best to a nonproduce person, I mention that if an orange display is completely replenished three times a day in a busy store versus twice a week in the sleepy store down the road, then that item will be much fresher and will stay fresher longer once they get the produce home.

The challenge for the produce manager at my (or any slower store) is, how can they reach the busy level?

It isn’t easy. Some stores can open and they’re busy from Day One. All the others just have to grind it out. They have to build sales. They have to take chances on when to anticipate a traffic spike and merchandise and stock to the same standard as the busy, cross-town store. On a regular basis, they must take advantage of or create some kind of marketing event that will draw in customers.

Additionally, the slower stores should expect to absorb some higher shrink and invest in added labor in order to realize their sales potential.

Developing a busy store involves many factors. But the smart store and produce manager must turn on the creativity if they want to break out of their traces. The alternative, of course, is to do nothing.

Which forces people like, uh, me to do heavy shopping elsewhere.

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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