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

I always emphasized to my kids growing up, “If you want to be able to write well, read a lot.”

Similarly, I coached produce clerks through the years that if they wanted to get merchandising ideas, visit other stores.

I never limited them to visit neighboring, sister stores in our chain. I told them the competition was sometimes a better stop. Merchandising ideas are mostly re-hashed ones that have evolved over the years. Sometimes a competitor uses a slightly different twist, one that can be borrowed and used in the future.

I once visited an out-of-state chain. At the entrance of their produce department they had three ice tub-style incline tables that measured about 20 feet across. Lined up within were neatly stacked, banded but untrimmed green onions.

Each facing took up about 2½ feet. This took up far more space than the usual, trimmed version, but it conveyed freshness and that for 50 cents this was an amazing value.

As soon as I returned home I put in a special order for the same from our local grower. They thought we were nuts, but we replicated the same look for a new store opening. Customers loved the display and lingered in the department. The green onions didn’t cost us any more than had we bought the same item, pre-trimmed. The perception was that we had something special, that this produce department said value and fresh. This was the only significant change we made.

Thanks to the borrowed idea from the cross-country chain.

However, grocers (same company or competitors) don’t have a lock on retail ideas. I was in a shopping mall recently. Several of the clothing stores used all sorts of merchandising twists to enhance their offerings. Some used old crates or old-looking tin washtubs to display their goods. Others used mirrors, lighting or props to call attention to whatever they were selling: boots, skis, cameras or home furnishings.

One store displayed their model shoes on a bed of realistic-looking plastic clover.

First thing I thought was how bright a contrast that would provide with fresh lemons on display. I pulled up the corner of the faux clover, looking for a manufacturer tag to possibly borrow the idea down the road.

Even car manufacturers are known to obtain a competitor’s car and reverse-engineer the vehicle, looking for ideas that they can use.

Visiting competitors or even unrelated retailers can be a great resource for merchandising ideas. Even if it’s your day off, and all you’re looking to do is pick up a new pair of tennis shoes.

You just never know when inspiration will strike.

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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