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

The meeting with the district’s dozen produce managers started out somewhat tense.

One of the senior managers began the dialogue with a sprinkling of “you” statements. As in “You guys don’t understand” and “You guys need to get into the stores more often.”

“Wait a minute,” interrupted the produce director. “Aren’t ‘you guys’ and ‘us guys’ the same guys?”

This quieted the group, even drawing a few nervous chuckles. It was true. We were one, albeit somewhat dysfunctional, family. Both sides looked for common ground to build upon. It came down to the crazy notion that the produce managers didn’t think their input mattered.

The produce director seized upon the opportunity.

“Not true,” he said. “Take your weekly ad forecasts as just how much your contribution is needed.”

From there it went smoothly as the director spoke. The produce managers began to sit up a little straighter in their seats. Some even took notes.

“As a former buyer I can tell you how much we depend on you. Take the last strawberry ad, for example. To prepare, we look at movement history and know that we’ll move a range of seven to 15 loads.

“But how much will we need, exactly?” he said. “A good estimate from the produce managers helps us stay on track so we have enough, but don’t overorder. Somewhat like store-level ordering, but imagine what this is like, times 70.”

A couple of produce managers shifted uneasily in their seats.

“Anyone feeling a little bit guilty?” The director continued. “Oh, I see what some managers turn in for ad forecasts. I don’t want to put anyone on the spot, but oh yes I do. Store 103, how many strawberries did you move in the last ad? Twelve boards? More? Let’s see, according to the ad forecast submitted, you committed for a whopping two pallets. What do two pallets do for your busy store — get you set up for Day 1?”

The minor tongue-lashing quickly changed course.

“What the buyers need more than anything with ad forecasts is your experience,” the manager said.

“Take time and provide an honest assessment. Don’t worry if you submit a forecast for 10 pallets and only sell seven. We won’t force the balance on you.

“But understand that when you collectively undercommit and we base our buying on this information and come up short, we have to buy from secondary sources,” he said. “This typically means higher costs and no guarantee that the quality found will be as consistent as we all like. This affects everyone’s sales and especially has a big impact on gross profit margin.

“We,” the director emphasized, “depend on your expertise.”

His hands extended outward.

“You are more valuable than you realize. And this is only one example.”

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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