Armand Lobato, The Produce Aisle
Armand Lobato, The Produce Aisle

Produce managers must be very careful when dealing with distressed produce.

Distressed — meaning the fresh produce that is no longer, um, fresh.

Simple enough, right? Customers don’t frequent your store hoping to score shriveled squash, moldy mangoes or limp lettuce.

On the contrary — customers want produce that has been unloaded that very day, with morning dew still cool on the melons, a frosty bloom remaining on cold crunchy grapes or velvety blueberries.

While always looking for a good deal, customers place a higher value on fresh produce they can put into their refrigerator crisper drawer and enjoy now and later, thanks to maximum shelf life.

Walking through the lobby of a modest-sized retailer recently, I nearly tripped over a nonrefrigerated, palletized corn display that was old, old, old. Instead of getting it off the sales floor or otherwise replenishing with fresh supply, they simply hung a “reduced” price sign on the display.

Yuck. I couldn’t understand why they chose to do this, especially as the rest of the produce department was otherwise presentable. The first impression was enough to make a customer turn around and walk out. Every sensation: sight, smell, touch, taste (assumed), even hearing, was a turnoff.

That’s right. Hearing. The husks were so dry they crackled when touched. It was a heartrending display — of mismanagement.

Is there ever justification for on-floor distressed produce sales? Rarely. If all available bananas are starting to speckle, for example, a store might get away with such an on-floor price reduction.

Temporarily, that is. A store should also be taking immediate action to find fresher product.

But even with this exception are firm rules: Keep the banana display culled, neat and clean. Keep the fruit one layer. Make a professional-looking sign. Even with all these caveats, such a display can spoil a store’s “fresh” image.

Whenever a produce manager mixes marked down product in the same vicinity as the fresh offerings, a customer may hesitate to buy anything as they think, “How old is the ‘new’ stuff? What kind of store am I shopping in anyway?” It’s best to keep saleable, marginal merchandise separate. Or donate it.

If a produce manager arrives one morning and faces removing an entire display of dehydrated corn, he certainly doesn’t want to lose money. The question to be asked is, “Does the distressed item represent any value?”

If the answer is yes, first clean and replenish the display with fresh product. Dummy up the base or reduce facings to minimize further shrink. Then in your back, prep area, trim and overwrap the older product, and sell it on a separate table, following your company merchandising guidelines.

But always strive to stock fresh — especially in the all-important, first-impression lobby displays.

Armand Lobato works for the Idaho Potato Commission. His 30 years of experience in the produce business span a range of foodservice and retail positions.

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