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

Fresh is best.

Nutrition experts advise consumers to be wary of the middle aisles of a grocery store, as these are stocked with the highest concentration of processed foods, frozen or prepared meals that are high in sodium and calories (like my personal evil favorite, pizza rolls). As a result, with each day the humble produce department is becoming increasingly popular with shoppers.

That begs the question, “how good is your produce department?”

It stands to reason that we should be striving to make the produce department as appealing as possible. However, many chains I visit across the country aren’t appreciably different from decades past. In fact, many are worse.

I see nicer fixtures, but the offerings are often low or out of stock. I see shoppers picking through shopworn displays trying to find an apple that isn’t bruised or a pepper that isn’t shriveled.

I see clerks mishandle produce, dumping merchandise out onto a display, not speaking to customers — or worse, no clerks on the floor at all. Sometimes this is a result of produce clerks summoned to bail out a dysfunctional front end as temporary cashiers every time there’s a doughnut or lunch rush.

Ideal execution stems from chain leadership. My opinion is that if a chain is sincerely dedicated to having their produce departments as the star of the store, core philosophies have to be re-established.

The survival of a chain may depend on this.

Of course, a chain must be committed to buying top-quality produce and establishing relationships with reputable shippers. However, at the store level a chain must rededicate itself to “fresh.” Chains must develop or attract strong produce managers, pay them well and reward them for exceeding goals.

These produce managers must be passionate and top-notch at all levels: training, merchandising, being reliable. The position should be one that clerks aspire towards.

In order for a produce department to reach the highest level, chains must re-evaluate their standards and the labor needed to meet these expectations.

Over the years, labor dollars have been bled out of the produce department. It shows. That labor needs to be put back into the stores’ budgets if a chain wants their produce departments to shine. How many more labor dollars? It depends, but I’d start by asking the produce managers.

These are the front-line people who know what it takes to deliver the clean, abundant, hand-stacked “wow” produce standard that chains will need going forward. Produce managers can best say what resources are needed to do the job right. Once all the tools are in place, the chain can best hold the produce manager accountable.

The question to chains is this familiar refrain: Are you willing to pay the price?

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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