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

To anyone outside the produce world, marketing fruits and vegetables in retail may seem like a quiet, even easy line of work.

To the untrained eye it’s a matter of goods stacked on fixtures, like any other retail line.

Except it isn’t.

When touring stores with district managers, especially those not completely tuned into produce, I kept them on their toes as we visited as many as a dozen stores in a day. I focused on these direct questions in each location:

How’s the sanitation? It isn’t difficult to maintain a clean department — clean mats, fixtures, wet rack, floors, back room, prep areas, and more — but only if the produce manager follows a strict routine. 

If they didn’t this was evident in the department’s overall appearance, how everything else is managed. All of which affects safety, job satisfaction, organization and even sales. “Clean” invites growth and repeat business just as dirt repels sales.

How’s the stock level? Are the tables neatly stocked? Full, level and ready for business? Minimal out of stocks? Inventory under control? Potential shrink due to this or other factors? Evidence of regular rotation and good quality on display? 

How’s the merchandising? Good organization, color breaks and creative displays? Is the produce manager going above and beyond anywhere that we can complement? What is the manager doing with ad items — promoting aggressively or too timid with space allocation?

What is the crew up to? Are they productive, on the sales floor and stocking in a prioritized manner? Are they working with a sense of urgency? Interacting with customers? In all circumstances I made sure to speak to each clerk, introduce myself to any I didn’t know, and sincerely asked them for any suggestions and thanked them for their hard work.

Is the produce manager complying with company programs? We always had plenty to follow up on, be it merchandising direction or proper use of signs, for a couple of examples. Consistency within a chain is vital for success and it’s easy for a store to slip into complacency.

Finally, how do customers perceive the produce department? Using our own customer perspective, would we let our sweet silver-haired mother shop here? Would we shop here? Why or why not? 

These questions (and a few more I know I missed) were leveled in a pragmatic manner at each store. The “produce walk” definitely involved the produce manager, who we sought to help, improve and provide the necessary tools for maximum sales and gross profit. If the produce manager was present, we made sure to follow up with our notes and a call the next day to review.

All these points show that produce is a little more than what meets the eye. 

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 [email protected].

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