(May 9) Consolidation in the retail industry has caused more retail stores to look alike and fewer to have independent identities, but one retail chain is trying to remain distinctive.

Fresh Brands Inc., Sheboygan, Wis., has created the Pampered to Perfection program. It was developed to set the company’s produce departments apart from the rest.

“We are trying to make a difference in the produce department,” said Scott Zeier, vice president of produce operations for Fresh Brands. “Produce is becoming very important. Ninety-eight percent of a store’s customer base elects where they shop because of the produce department.”

SLATED FOR PIGGLY WIGGLY AND DICK’S

The Pampered to Perfection program was launched April 23 after nine months in the making. It will be instituted in the company’s 72 franchised Piggly Wiggly supermarkets, as well as its 27 corporate-owned Piggly Wiggly and Dick’s supermarkets.

“We want to guarantee consistency in all of our produce departments to the consumer,” Zeier said. “Through this program, we are increasing our employee knowledge at the retail level. That is our goal.”

The program includes a three-part educational module that all produce department managers must complete in order to be classified Master Certified Produce Experts.

The first part of the module is computer-based learning. Fresh Brands, with the help of a software company, developed the computer-based learning that contains actual dialogue, script and 383 photographs from its own stores. The company identified important issues like merchandising, displaying, food safety and department operations that are taught in the educational sessions. Produce managers must pass a computerized test before moving on to part two.

During the second part, Zeier said produce managers teach their employees what they have learned using the computer and the “Produce Knowledge and Procedure Action Guide” manual.

“With this program, we want the expectations of the employee base at the position that they understand the importance of quality and freshness to the consumer,” Zeier said.

When this phase is finished, the produce manager must pass a written test.

The third and final part is certification. Fresh Brands’ produce supervisors visit each store and evaluate how well the produce manager and his employees execute the Pampered to Perfection elements they have learned.

UPON CERTIFICATION

When a produce manager gets certified, the Pampered to Perfection point-of-sale materials get set up in the store. A large certified cutout introducing the certified produce manager will be placed at the front of the produce department, a certification plaque will be hung in the department and the produce manager will where a Pampered to Perfection apron and hat.

Zeier said the program also will be supported by outdoor billboards and radio, television and newspaper advertising.

The company is rolling out the program in geographical stages, and as of May 9, seven stores had been certified. Next month, a group of 18 stores will begin the program. Zeier said the company hopes to have all produce managers certified by the end of the year.