Pamela Riemenschneider, Aisle Wandering
Pamela Riemenschneider, Aisle Wandering

CHICAGO — When I met the panel of consumers selected for the Midwest Produce Conference & Expo in Chicago, I was a little concerned.

Some of these men and women weren’t your average shopper, though we screened for demographics. They had to shop for groceries at least once a week and all of them bought fruits and vegetables most of the time to every time they went on these excursions.

They ranged in age from 22 to 70. None of them had a relationship with their retailers.

One gal said she frequents the farmers market and talks with the vendors there, but it seemed like the rest were walking their produce departments blind, having never asked a clerk for information or samples.

They didn’t even know you could ask to try something at store level. They also reported not being very impressed with the produce at traditional supermarkets, instead heading to fruit stands like Stanley’s Fruits and Vegetables and Pete’s Produce, believing them “fresher” and “more in tune with local.”

The panelists gave me the impression they thought the produce at their supermarket wasn’t at the peak of flavor and was too expensive, which, as a produce professional gives me pause, as I know the supermarket is probably getting their produce either at the same time or sooner.

One lady said she feels like supermarket produce is trucked for weeks before it gets there.

This time of year, I’m thinking more like trucked for hours or a day or two.

At Mariano’s Fresh Market, on the Urban Markets tour, merchandiser Ross Greco showed me a huge display of heirloom tomatoes that are personally delivered by the grower, who makes deliveries in a van.

They also had local herbs, had just sold out of Colorado peaches, and the ripe, delicious smell of melons at the peak of flavor greeted everyone as we walked in. A friendly clerk hand-delivered samples.

At Shop and Save Markets, which also was on our tour, there were beautiful displays of black watermelons, local corn and just about every type of stone fruit you can imagine, all picked at the peak of the season.

There also were Illinois-grown kale, turnip and collard greens.

The panelists said they didn’t really pay attention to the signage at their stores. Very few of them get a newspaper, though they said they see the weekly ad, probably getting it in the mail.

Where does this leave the retailer?

Store-level execution.

Our front-line people need to be encouraged to interact with shoppers. This may sound daunting, but it’s as easy as having the clerk who’s stocking smile and ask someone if they need some help. I suspect most times people will say “no, thank you” but at least it shows you’re paying attention and are willing to help.

Too often I go into a store and that clerk doing the stocking doesn’t even make eye contact.

Maybe it’s time for a refresher on reaching out to customers.

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