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

Point-zero-zero-seven-five.

That’s the figure when 300 is divided by 40,000. Forty thousand is what at least one consumer group estimates is the average number of stock-keeping units in a grocery store. In larger grocery stores, the average soars above 50,000 stock-keeping units. 

The 300 figure? That’s a conservative estimate of fresh produce items carried in a higher-end, well-stocked market. Either as a percentage or overall volume of items, produce doesn’t account for much of what consumers choose from, does it?

And yet, produce is the star of the show.

Many years ago, studies showed that customers decided where to shop based on the meat department quality and selection. Today (and for as long as I can remember), produce is the focal point. As in, the better the quality of the produce department, the more likely shoppers will choose that location as “their” store to shop. Period.

Which is why it’s so important for chains to put an extra emphasis on produce.

It starts at the top. And if having a top-notch produce program is important to the CEO, you can bet that every management level cascading down in the ranks will ensure that all the tools will be in place to ensure produce success.

This means having an exceptionally engaged produce director. As well as seasoned buyers with not only an eye for shared, grower-shipper volume opportunities, but one that sticks to a consistent high-quality too. An exceptional produce program also fields enough supervisors to monitor and mentor produce managers. 

Especially, a good produce management program places emphasis on store-level execution.

This means developing and helping produce managers in specific ways. Providing incremental, documented training that starts with every part-time clerk, all the way to veteran-level management who aspire to grow beyond the department manager status (we need produce-savvy people running stores and companies too). A good produce operation recognizes its managers, allows for a certain amount of autonomy, adequate labor, and provides desirable things.

But let’s not lose sight of the role of fresh produce.

When a customer enters a store and the produce department, in the best sense they should be “wowed!” 

All the talk about increasing fresh consumption should engage consumers’ thoughts as they walk a produce department. Following all the directives (that again begin at the top), an ideal produce department will be clean and inviting, well-merchandised with lots of samples, color breaks and displays that are well-stocked, level, signed properly and staffed with friendly, knowledgeable people.

That is how a chain escorts the produce “star” onto the stage. 

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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