(March 20) Perhaps produce department managers should be writing broccoli prescriptions for their customers.

Pulling in salaries less than half that of supermarket pharmacy managers but competitive with every other department, produce managers received an average salary of $32,769 last year.

The salary average was reported in the 2006 Supermarket Store Management compensation and benefit survey and does not reflect bonuses.

The survey — sponsored by the Arlington, Va.-based National Grocers Association and conducted by People Solution Strategies, Chesterfield, Mo. — polled 74 companies that owned 743 stores with more than 62,000 employees.

This was the fourth year of the survey, said Fred Martels, president of People Solution Strategies. He said the data were compiled in the late fall and early winter of 2005.

He said the results generally showed a 2% to 3% increase in supermarket manager salaries compared with the previous survey.

Martels said the high salary for pharmacy managers — averaging more than $83,000 — was simply a reflection of supply and demand. A shortage of student capacity at pharmacy schools is driving up wages for pharmacists.

As for produce, Martels said the salary survey showed the department is within the same general salary range as other supermarket departments. Excluding pharmacy, the store low was an average of $32,465 for the customer service department manager to a high of $36,569 for the average salary for a meat department manager.

The survey showed 252 of the 524 stores responding to the produce manager questions had fewer than 50 employees. If the survey had included larger companies, Martel speculated average salaries would have been higher.

“If you looked at chains only, you might see higher salaries,” he said.

The survey did not measure the turnover of supermarket managers, but Martels said managers are less prone to leave than department employees.

Still, the survey noted that 219 produce managers of 524 polled had been produce managers for five years or less.

Produce managers with the most tenure drew the biggest salary. The survey revealed an average salary of $35,182 for 55 produce managers who had been at their jobs for 20 years or more. That compares with an average salary of $31,963 for those at their jobs for five years or less.

By region, the survey showed highest wages for produce managers in the northeast U.S., whose salaries averaged almost $12,000 above the U.S. average.

The survey showed 69% of stores used both subjective and objective measures to determine salary increases for produce managers.

POINT OF DIFFERENCE

Martels said the produce department plays an important role in the success of stores, particularly as the influence of Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart and other discounters increase.

“The produce department can be a point of differentiation in not only product, but also in the knowledge of the employees,” he said.

The ability of employees to engage and advise customers on fresh produce purchases can be a competitive advantage, Martels noted.

One criticism that Martels leveled at many supermarkets in the survey is their limited criteria in determining manager bonuses.

While 80% of stores said they offer a bonus plan, Martels said none of the supermarkets used “reduction of employee turnover” as a bonus criterion.

Instead, the focus was on achieving store and department gross margin and profit targets (42% and 47% of stores used those factors as bonus criteria, respectively), achieving a target labor ratio to sales (41%) and achieving sales per labor hour (12%).

“The criteria is not broad enough,” Martels said. “In the competitive world we live in today, (reducing) turnover is absolutely key if you want to compete,” he said.

The survey showed 17% of stores don’t calculate employee turnover and 17% only occasionally calculate turnover.

One produce manager at a store that is part of a small chain in Indiana, speaking on background, said the average salary reported in the survey was close to what he received.

However, he said his company’s bonus plan had been taken away. He doesn’t receive any annual review, the company has no 401(k) and vacations are “use them or lose them.” In addition, employees now must pay 50% of health insurance, he said.

“It’s all take and no give,” he said. “There is no incentive for sales. All they want is a heavy gross margin of 37%.”

The chain expects to have $130 in sales per man hour, he said, with 10% of store sales from produce.

Armand Lobato, produce buyer for Wild Oats Markets Inc., Boulder, Colo., said the salary average reported in the survey seemed accurate.

Lobato said produce managers in smaller chains may earn salaries in the mid-$20,000 range, while produce managers in some regions could earn in the $40,000-plus range.