(April 29) Do you remember your first day on job? Do you recall the questions you had as a produce clerk or the dif-ficulties you encountered as a new department manager? Perhaps you have new employees or new managers under your watch with similar questions.

We asked several produce managers, directors and others what they wish they could have learned their first day on the job. They also offered the most important tips they ever learned from their own produce director or supervisor over the years.

Use these thoughts from others in the field to strengthen your training efforts, offer tips to your employees and, in the long run, improve your department as a whole.

INVENTORY CONTROL

“Inventory control would be the most important thing I ever learned,” says Jerry Larrabee, produce manager for Hy-Vee Food Store No. 5, Omaha, Neb. “It’s important to make sure there is enough product to take care of the customers’ needs without having extra in the backroom or the cooler so you can keep what you have fresh,” he says.

Larrabee says learning how to control inventory requires getting to know your customers and what they buy. Knowing how much they buy enables you to allot the appropriate amount of space to a product. “The ideal is to have all your product in the display with the cooler empty,” he says. To do that, “It takes time and experience and getting to know your customers at every location. Each time you change locations it’s a different story,” he adds.

“Your customers teach you a lot about product,” says Tom Perry, produce manager/buyer for McGinnis Sisters Spe-cialty Food Stores, Pittsburgh. Only 30 miles separate the two McGinnis Sisters stores, but he says clientele demo-graphics and preferences differ greatly. For example, Italian salad mixes at the Monroeville store outsell those at the Pittsburgh store by a 3-to-1 ratio. Understanding his customers’ needs helps him order appropriately.

“One of my problems with employees now is teaching what’s considered a cull and what’s still marketable,” says Larry Dockins, produce manager, for single-unit Harvest Market, Fort Bragg, Calif. Experience has taught him how to evaluate produce and rotation in general, he says. To hone the skill, he has employees cull produce into a box and then he evaluates and discusses their selections with them. “You try to go over it with them,” he adds.

QUALITY FIRST

“I had an old produce manager who always said, ‘SOQNOP,’” says Pete Leung, director of perishable operations for 135 Brookshire Food Stores, Tyler, Texas. “That means sell on quality, not on price. I think that’s important today,” he says. He adds that most customers don’t carry a list when they enter the produce department, so they’re open to what catches their eye. “Quality and eye appeal sell the product.”

Maintaining freshness and quality are the first two ways to maximize sales, says T.C. Williams, training manager for the Crosset Co., Independence, Ky. “Make sure the department is fresh and make sure you carry quality product,” he says. “Even though there are a million other things to do, the first thing you should do is a freshness check and be constantly on the lookout for fresh product.

“Don’t hold onto product too long because you don’t want to shrink it. We all know the produce manager’s prayer: ‘Please God, give me one more day before I have to throw it out.’” In some instances, it’s better to reduce the price and sell the product while the quality is good, he says.

“Look for quality first no matter the cost,” Perry says. He cites strawberries as an example. “Camarosas are the best strawberry you can buy. They cost more but I buy them anyway,” Perry says. He offers Camarosas all the time, when his competitors offer other varieties at lower prices. “We’ve sold the customer on the California strawberry image. They want that color, the size, the taste,” he says.

CUSTOMER SERVICE

“My store manager, produce manager and merchandiser really taught the importance of being helpful, speaking, being friendly, going out of our way to help the customers,” Leung says. “We did a lot of suggestive selling and when a customer asked a question about an item, we quickly cut them a sample.”

He cites the growing Hispanic clientele at Brookshire Food Stores. “They’re really apprehensive to ask anything. You’ve got to be forward, smiling and seeking out what their needs are,” he says.

Legendary Customer Service classes are one part of the Brookshire University training program, Leung says. “We do new partner orientation and customer service is the first and foremost thing we preach and train them on.”

Leung admits there is some apprehension to customer service. “That’s an area for improvement … that one-on-one contact,” he says. A smile is often the first and simplest way to practice customer service.

Knowing your customers is one step to providing better customer service.

“Make sure you carry the variety that your customer wants,” Williams says. He suggests that retailers utilize focus groups to see if they carry enough variety in a certain area or category, such as specialties or value-added. “When you don’t carry an item that your customer wants, you give them a reason to find it at a competitor,” he says.

PRODUCT KNOWLEDGE

Product knowledge is another area Hy-Vee’s Larrabee wishes he could have learned the first day on the job. It’s not possible to learn product knowledge quickly, however, with such a vast array of categories and items.

“It’s about knowing what the different apples taste like, the differences between pears and the eight to 10 different kinds of lettuce,” Larrabee says. “And then you have to learn what type to use in a particular salad.” he adds.
“That basic product knowledge is important,” Larrabee says. Commodity boards, such as the Washington Apple Commission, Wenatchee, and publications such as The Packer newspaper, have supplied product information for him over the years.

It’s important to accept change and to learn from your mistakes, says Allen Typliski, category manager for The Northwest Co., Winnipeg, Manitoba, which operates 155 stores. “Every day is different. You never quit learning,” he says, adding that managers and clerks should grasp what they can learn everyday.

“Don’t expect to learn this business in a couple of weeks and don’t get upset if you’re not making headway,” he says.

One way to approach each day is to set priorities, Williams says. It’s important to determine what needs to be done first, second and third in the day … knowing what is the goal,” he says. “For example, having as a goal that we’ll be set and ready for business by 9 a.m. each day.”

EFFECTIVE DISPLAYS

Many retailers consider the task of building effective, attractive produce displays an art form.

Harvest Market’s Dockins likens display building to a florist making a bouquet. He keeps a Polaroid camera on hand and maintains a photo file of successful displays. “Every season we do an actual pumpkin patch and try to do it a little differently each year,” he says.

Don’t hinder a sales opportunity by forgetting display basics.

“People still buy with their eyes, no matter what,” says Jay Werkowski, produce manager for Wiseway Super Food Center, Merrillville, Ind., one of seven stores. He adds that it’s important to provide all the information the customer needs in the display.

“It seems so simple, but it’s amazing how often you see basic information like price and unit left out of displays,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how well-executed a plan is without that information on the sign.”

Don’t take short cuts when rotating a display, Williams advises. “Lots of produce managers and produce clerks take short cuts when re-stocking, for example, 72-count Washington apples. They’ll pull forward and restock just the back, putting the new, shiny ones in the back (where they can be readily seen),” he says. It’s important that staff take the time to pull everything from the display, put the oldest product on top and look for quality problems while you work, he says.

When creating a display, Werkowski suggests grouping items by commodity or a related use or end product, such as limes and avocados for guacamole. “Put in something that’s a demand item and then add something else,” he adds. Lastly, clerks should ask themselves if the display tells the customer everything they need to know to make a purchase.

Don’t hesitate to allow your clerks some creativity in building displays. Werkowski thinks some employees harbor creativity that might be stifled if they are given too much direction. “Sometimes you are pleasantly surprised,” he says.