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

When asked what I liked best about being a produce supervisor for a large retail chain, the answer was easy. I said it was because the job focused on opportunities, not limitations.

To explain further, I’ll delve into the world of renowned horror writer Stephen King. He writes his best-sellers on a simple platform: What if?

For example, what if — an evil clown lived in the sewers? What if — a rabid dog kept a mother and child trapped in their car? What if — an insane ex-nurse locked up her favorite writer in a remote mountain cabin?

You get the drift.

Transfer the premise of this, for just a moment, to the average produce department.

Scratch that. Make it, to an extraordinary produce manager.

One week, “Scott,” without any prompting made a grand “what if?” proposal.

“What if we were to make the produce department look like grand-opening day?”

The store manager suggested the idea was nuts.

“Dude, I appreciate your passion, but this is a midrange-volume store in a quiet neighborhood. Our sales are decent but predictably average. We can’t afford the kind of labor that you’re talking about.”

Scott was persistent, however. We supported the idea, using the store as an experiment, did a one-time labor adjustment and remerchandised the entire department over a three-day period.

We moved fixtures, revamped signing and brought in lots of additional, fresh produce. Every end cap spilled over, every display was stacked well beyond the department’s normal two or three layers. It was abundance, redefined.

We hung balloons in the lot and managed to get a promotional neighborhood flier in the area newspaper, along with the regular, weekly ad. Other departments in the store spruced up for the occasion too.

That Wednesday, sales grew throughout the day. The middle-of-the pack produce department that averaged $38,000 a week in sales nearly doubled sales that week. All the worries of covering extra labor costs were for naught.

It didn’t stay that way, but the sales in subsequent weeks remained 15 percentage points above same-week comps from the prior year.

Not everyone can (or should) pull out the stops like this, but if you apply just a little of this marketing philosophy, it will have a positive effect on sales.

What if — you simply pumped up the stock level?

What if — you brought in a handful of high-profit items and built massive displays for a weekend?

What if — you thought in terms of possibilities and not limitations?

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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