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

Comedian Jim Gaffigan quipped during a stand-up routine: “If it wasn’t for McDonald’s green shakes, how would we ever know that St. Patrick’s Day is coming?”

Indeed. Mass marketers condition consumers to start thinking about upcoming seasonal events long beforehand. Clothing and candy marketers push Easter sales weeks ahead of time, and Home Depot starts loading its racks with gardening equipment, soil and such well before it is time to garden. Even before the snowdrifts begin to melt (for most of us in temperate zones, anyhow), there’s an impending feeling of welcome change.

The change can be felt in the produce aisle as well.

I say “can” because it’s up to the produce manager to seize upon opportunities to jump on the spring fever bandwagon. It’s up the creative produce merchandiser to realize that after these long and cold months customers have grown weary of winter. They want to dig the garden hose out of the tool shed. They want to start rinsing the layers of dust off of the patio. They’re anxious for warmer weather, even if all they’re treated to is a teaser weekend here and there. They’re hungry for a change.

They want to barbecue.

The good news? Thanks to great farmers, a rapid distribution system and steady supplies, produce departments can push barbecue season now — months earlier than most consumers are even expecting anything.

For example, Florida corn is under way. We have spuds for potato salad, fresh lettuce and all the fixings for green salads, even melons and berries for snacking and dessert.

The hustling produce manager will need to put some thought into building this kind of event. Look at the weather forecast first. Is a nice weekend coming up, even relatively speaking? Sharpen the ordering pencil. The rest of the plan should be easy.

Think big. On Thursday going into the warming weekend, build the endcap of fresh corn. Flank this with bushel baskets of contrasting red potatoes. Hang clip strips of corn skewers from the sign posts. Widen your display of cut watermelon and berries. Talk to your meat market counterpart (and other department managers) a week out or so. Tell them you’re on a mission so they can do the same with steak space allocation, extra racks or buns and perhaps an adjacent chip or soda-pop display.

Who cares if it isn’t Memorial Day yet?

As the Friday momentum builds, build a secondary display of packaged mushrooms near those steaks. Wheel over a barbecue grill or two from general merchandise and park it next to your displays. Finally, wrap some potatoes in foil and place inside the grill. Your customers will get the message. Sign everything well, keep everything neat and shoppable.

Then step back and, you know, see what happens.

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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