In the old days, it was hard to hide a camera. What"s more, the boxy 35 mm SLR cameras that were common back in the 1980s needed a attention-grabbing flash to take a decent picture in a fresh produce department.
But the produce nerd would find himself on the road and come upon a gem of a wet rack display and want to snap a few pictures. Or an aspiring produce journalist would want to add a few retail shots of the snappy and colorful produce department at the hot new supermarket on his latest road trip.
Unless the trip was prearranged and management had already given the okay for a photo shoot, it is unlikely that a sudden impulse to take a picture in the produce department could be satisfied. Sure, one could always "ask for permission" to take a photo, but that kind of request, no matter how sincerely articulated ("I just love what you have done with your apple display! You guys are awesome!"), was kicked up the chain of command to the store manager and perhaps even to corporate. Needless to say, such requests always ended with a polite "No."
This universal paranoia about photographs inside the produce department/supermarket is not unique to the U.S. When I visited Russia several years ago we visited an upscale supermarket in Moscow where two Secret Service style security guards in suits, fitted with earpieces and lapel mikes, were watching our wide-eyed tour group with sobering intensity. One false move and I could imagine being interrogated in a soundproof room with a single, swaying, light bulb hanging overhead.
What are the reasons for supermarket skittishness about pictures of the produce department? It is not exactly top secret stuff, since thousands of consumers come through the store every week, checking prices and inspecting quality. Supermarkets aren"t exactly protecting trade secrets in how they create displays and plan layouts for the produce department the seasoned produce veteran can take in a lot of detail with his trained eye in a cursory glance. Another possible reason for the presumptive "no" to photos is the fear that photos may expose the seamy underbelly of ransacked, out-of-stock produce displays. Produce managers don"t want to be immortalized in a less-than-flattering moment.
I can also understand that retailers don"t want competitors coming into their stores and creating a distraction, or perhaps invading the privacy of customers by taking photos. So there needs to be a concession to the fact that such prohibitions on photography within the supermarket are not without reasonable cause.
But the truth of the matter is that ironclad prohibitions of photos inside the produce department/supermarket are over. Consumers are sharing their world with the twitterverse, their Facebook friends and Pinterest pals. If they see an awesome display of pomegranates, they may be likely to shoot the picture and upload it on the spot.
Consumer empowerment comes not only from smart phone technology and social media networks. Supermarkets and produce marketers themselves have opened kicked open the door for use of smartphones in stores by creating QR codes displays that consumers are SUPPOSED to scan, to take consumers to a video about the grower or a coupon that can be used on that very same shopping trip.
No, the idea that supermarkets are going to stop pictures of the produce department in the store is a bygone assumption.
While the image of someone taking out their smartphone/camera in the produce department may raise the hair on the necks of produce department managers, they will think twice before they stop the consumer.
Is that mom scanning the QR code or shooting a picture of the sweet corn? Is that middle aged man checking e-mail or snapping the price on pumpkins? Hard and fast distinctions can no longer be made.
It is likely that supermarkets won"t change their "no photo" policy, whether now or in a decade. But consumers, with their smartphones at the ready to scan QR codes and tweet about an amazing sale on honeycrisp apples, won"t bother to ask for permission.
The Packer will again recap the year"s top stories later this year, but I posed the question of "What is the top produce story of 2012?" to the Fresh Produce Industry Discussion Group, and the poll question found a virtual dead heat through Dec. 13. The top answers were the failed PMA/United merger and the Mexican/U.S. tomato dispute. I suppose the fact that industry folks have trouble seeing eye-to-eye created plenty of industry news in 2012, and that truism will probably will hold in 2013 as well.