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

File this one under “A tale of two displays.”

I saw a photo on a friend’s Facebook page recently of a small produce display being set up by an independent retailer. How small? Instead of fixtures, the retailer opted to use cinder block-supported plain pallets. On top of these pallets were shipper cartons of fresh produce. The produce manager took it a step further and rearranged the product within the cartons so most of the produce was hand-stacked: Neat, clean, and level.

The produce gleamed like jewels in a showcase, beckoning customers to buy.

To compare and contrast, I walked a national chain store yesterday.

The produce department recently had a face-lift. The old tables had been yanked and in their place were furniture-quality fixtures with a beautiful stain-and-shellacked finish. Each new table also had matching side tables (what we used to call “knee-knockers”) useful for tie-in items. Topping it all off was a brand new set of signs.

It was a produce manager’s dream, a complete new set of tables. Most likely it was installed over a one- or two-night project.

The produce on the new tables? Well, let’s just say again that those fixtures were sure keen.

All the produce on the new tables had been dumped. Not that the produce itself was bad. It was not. It was top-grade merchandise. However, I could tell by watching the clerks take tray after tray of apples out of the shipping containers and pouring them onto the display that this was the standard. At least for this store.

Granted, there were pockets of inspiration. The wet rack was in respectable shape, as was the multideck salad case. Bananas were placed neatly on the display as were the packages of berries in the refrigerated floor units. However, most everything else was like the apples — no stacking, no finesse.

Does it matter to customers if the produce is hand-stacked? Perhaps not. Sometimes even an unkempt display has a certain appeal. But even a nonstacked display should be neat and clean and level.

The displays on the Ethan Allen-like produce fixtures? Varying heaps of produce, inconsistent throughout the department. In a word, it was sloppy.

While customers are compelled to shop a sloppy produce department, it doesn’t compare to the “wow” factor seen in well-run, mostly hand-stacked operations. Nor does it compare in sales.

Hand-stacking produce, whenever possible, shows off the natural beauty of the product; the shine of apples, the contrast of oranges next to granny smiths, or lemons next to tomatoes, for a few examples, all looks so much better when hand-stacked.

Lest we ever forget, it is not fixtures but fresh produce that is the star of our show.

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.

What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.