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

When should a produce department be at its best?

The standard answer to this, naturally, is all the time. It shouldn’t matter what time of day a customer arrives to shop. The ideal is that a pristine produce operation awaits every shopper that walks through your door.

The reality is, this simply isn’t possible. 

Oh, many chains I’ve worked for fought hard to reach this standard. We tried boosting training, adding hours to schedules, and creating assistants-to-the-assistant produce manager to ensure that someone was always in charge of maintaining high standards. To no avail.

In fact, the closest a produce department ever comes close to maintaining superb customer service and near-perfect stock conditions? During a grand opening period.That’s the time when extraordinary efforts are taken.

The schedule has two or three times the normal amount of labor. The grand opening plan is often peppered with visiting produce managers from nearby stores, who lend their expertise in stocking and supervising nearly every shift. This is done at considerable expense so that the grand opening “Wow!” effect leaves an impression on as many customers as possible.

The rough stats, according to my produce director pals, is if a chain can get a customer to shop a store five consecutive trips, you’ll win their long-term business. I believe it.

For the rest of us mere mortal chains in a non-grand-opening operation mode, it’s a tougher task.

Which means that if a chain hopes to maintain the highest standards, but also knows the reality of a less than ideal presentation exists at certain times, this calls for a more sustainable strategy.

The most logical approach is to set goals, so the produce department is up, dialed-in, and in the best possible stock condition for the highest concentration of customer traffic.

Typically, this means the 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. dinner slot. This is when the bulk of most daily customers drop in to take care of evening meal shopping. If your produce department is clean, neat, organized, rotated and fully stocked during this time you’ll enjoy strong sales based on average customer traffic patterns.

Of course, weekends are also prime time periods to shine as well. The goal for optimum product stock levels is more challenging, and a typical produce department will see sustained customer traffic from 8 a.m. until at least 5 or 6 p.m. If you’re able to keep high standards for the weekend push, it’ll be reflected in strong sales and gross profit.

This doesn’t mean a department should ease standards in off times. The goal should be the same no matter what. But when push comes to shove, you need to be ready when the party really gets cranking.

Armand Lobato works for the Idaho Potato Commission. His 40 years’ experience in the produce business span a range of foodservice and retail positions. E-mail him at lobatoarmand@gmail.com.

 
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