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

When it comes to working in the produce aisle, some people think there are no new ideas left.

These gloomy few believe that you stock items, and customers buy what they want, and there isn’t much more to retail than that.

Oh, ye of little faith.

Think of all the great ideas that have changed the way retailers sell produce: Changing pack sizes over the years have accommodated different family sizes, with more year-round availability and fewer gaps in many commodities. Real, new items such as small watermelons, tomatoes on-the-vine, value-added salads, niche-variety potatoes, grapes and cherries in zipper bags. The list goes on.

The trouble with ideas in any business is that few survive. Just as the saying goes about kissing a lot of frogs before finding a prince, so it is with executing a new idea. For every idea that succeeds, at least a dozen fizzle. Don’t let that discourage you.

The other big problem with ideas is that everyone looks to the top for inspiration, when we should be looking among the rank and file.

Years ago in a quarterly review meeting, our vice president spoke about how convenience stores and gas stations were aggressively marketing food and becoming a greater threat. One clerk in the crowd raised her hand and timidly asked, “Well, why don’t we sell gasoline then?”

The V.P. shrugged it off.

“We aren’t in the gasoline business,” he said.

Soon after that, someone submitted this in the suggestion box: “Put the grocer’s name and logo on highway ad signs so passing motorists might be directed to the store for food, just like the fast-food guys do.”

Same reaction from the suits — thanks, but no thanks.

Fast forward to today and both those ideas are in place, and common all across the country.

My guess is that unless the thought originated from a vice-president level or higher, the idea was shelved until time passed and the executive could resurrect the idea, take credit for it and bask in the glory. I suppose this is the way it will always be.

Sometimes ideas have a big impact. Others, maybe not so much. However, it doesn’t hurt to solicit ideas from everyone, because everyone benefits.

A produce manager I knew once switched his entire vegetable merchandising set with an opposite specialty case. A better traffic pattern resulted and sales went up a whopping 25% in one week, and sales kept on growing. The suggestion came from a sharp, part-time clerk. That was obviously a good team at work.

As Mike Aiton, marketing director for Prime Time International, Coachella, Calif., once told me, “More things get accomplished when nobody worries about who gets the credit or the blame.”

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. E-mail armandlobato@comcast.net.

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