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

What can a produce manager learn at a McDonald’s counter?

There may be a connection. I drop into many McDonald’s restaurant locations seeking coffee when I travel. The fast-food giant is consistent in many ways: It’s a safe place to stop, very clean and they provide prompt, courteous service.

OK, occasionally when I drop by I’m inclined to indulge in more than just a cup of coffee.

But on a recent occasion I stood alone at the counter while a dozen employees scurried about. As the employees filled cases and bins, several glanced my way but turned quickly away. Whoever was in charge of taking orders had apparently taken flight. I could read the thought on the other employee’s faces as they buried themselves in their work:

“I’m not on the counter. It’s not my job.”

Does this ever happen in retail? You bet.

I suspect we can all recall at one time or another, standing at a counter and for whatever reason, being ignored. Most customers won’t put up too much of a fuss. They will patiently wait, at least for a while. In my case, after 10 minutes (an eternity in McDonald’s policy, I’m sure) I simply left.

In a produce department we don’t have a fast-food type of counter that customers wait behind, but we do have fixtures stocked with self-serve products.

Occasionally, the products on those counters sell down. It happens with fresh produce all the time. Ad items sell out quickly. Same thing goes for high-turnover items like lettuce, tomatoes, or bananas. If the 10-pound bag potato end cap holds just 10 bales, fully stocked, that’s only 50 sales before the display is empty.

Further, most large produce departments are staffed with clerks assigned to specific areas: One is responsible for the wet rack, another for ad displays, another for dry tables and so on. Occasionally through the years when visiting a store I happened upon an empty or nearly depleted display. Before tracking down the manager, I would call this to the attention of the first clerk I saw.

As was often the case, I’d cringe when they said, “I’m working this side — that area is not my job.”

Often, produce managers are overly task-oriented. They drill into a clerk’s head that their primary responsibility is to stock one area and only that area. Ideally, the instruction should be that their primary responsibility is to take care of customers first, whatever that task may require.

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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