The Produce Aisle with Armand Lobato ( Photo by The Packer staff )

Heard at cookouts, or even once while striking up a conversation with someone while getting my tires rotated: “You’re a produce person? I would buy more fresh produce if I only knew what was in season — you know, what’s really good right now.”

Why aren’t we listening to these informal pleas? I have a suggestion to address this in a moment.

In the meantime, we pore over endless “trends” articles written too often by people I suspect aren’t even the primary household shopper. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic’s panic-shopping spree, consider what supposedly trendy products remained unsold. As marketers we don’t know everything, do we? Which leads me to two questions:

First, which department do customers consistently say determines where they do their regular grocery shopping? Produce. 

Second, what separates one chain apart from the rest? Excellent customer service.
Sometimes a chain has excellent produce quality. I can think of one national chain that consistently offers premium quality. Unfortunately, they lack in store-wide service. With few open checkstands, for example, they may do a great job of controlling their labor, but the result is flat sales. This also leaves few clerks to assist customers, including in the produce aisle.

The chains with superior produce and customer service? We read about their accomplishments all the time in trade publications. Outstanding produce departments are the innovative ones that aren’t afraid to succeed. They’re within empowering chains that have a whole-store, great quality and service approach. 

How many chains embrace this philosophy? Not nearly enough. They’re too busy analyzing their balance sheets.

My suggestion? Hire a part-time retired produce person or two to be “produce ambassadors” in your store.

It works for the big box stores. Their greeters are often retirees who enjoy keeping busy and helping people. If a traditional grocer did the same for the produce department, they would get someone who often has decades of experience and still loves to talk shop.

And shoppers will welcome such an authority whose only job, unlike the regular busy stocking clerks, would be to offer helpful advice.

“Try a sample of these cara cara oranges. Ever had one? They’re a cross, a natural mutation between two navels discovered in 1976. They’re seedless, sweet and in season for just a few more weeks.” The on-floor knowledgeable retiree could do so many things to call attention to fresh produce, show customers how to quickly cut up pineapple or mangoes, how to select a good cantaloupe, honeydew or watermelon.

The produce ambassador could provide the advice your customers seek. Who knows? Some of these veterans’ service and knowledge qualities may even rub off on your regular employees.

Related content:
The end of the beginning
What really matters in produce
Returning produce to normal

Submitted by Tom Kisling on Fri, 06/12/2020 - 08:19

I love reading your columns, Mr. Lobato. I grew up in a family wholesale/retail produce business. After my father passed away, I was the sole operator for 12 years. I sold three trailer loads of produce weekly. I loved to build displays and verbalized to my clerks and delivery drivers the same thoughts you share. The customer must be you first job. Without them, I don't need you. A brain tumor surprised me 25 years ago. I am mostly back to normal but don't have the strength and the stamina to go back into the business. I work for the government now as a statistician. It's more than anyone thought I would be able to do after my operation and six weeks in a coma. I still visit the farmer's markets on the weekend and stay in touch with people in the industry that I've known for more than 50 years. Keep writing your articles, I'll keep reading them.......