At a European quality control conference in 2000, the late management consultant Joseph Juran said: “In any competition an important element of grand strategy is to understand the strengths of the competitor ...”
Typically, this kind of high-end conference is geared for what one friend used to call “the suits.” You know, the presidents, CEO’s and other top executives.
Eventually, wisdom etched in Plexiglas awards or on motivational posters trickles its way down to the store-level employees, and those of us who call the produce aisle home. Everyone on the front lines appreciates good management direction too.
In regard to understanding the strengths of the competitor, I remember Kent, a produce manager I worked under who took the concept quite seriously.
“Armand,” he would say. “When you get off work it’s a good idea to stop in at the Shop & Stop market down the street, and see what they’re up to.”
I remember wincing and wondering why in the world this might be time well spent, after a long shift of unloading trucks, stocking, writing orders and rotating half the department. What benefit would it be to observe more of the same, even if it was the competition?
“Look, it’s a good practice to consider,” Kent said, seeing the reluctance in my face.
“You’re on the promotion list and when you interview with the district manager, knowing what the guy across town is up to will be viewed as a positive thing. It will show you’re motivated to learn about what the suits refer to as ‘the big picture.’”
I thought my work inside our humble store was dedication enough. However, Kent was pretty wise in a lot of ways, so I took his suggestion.
Once or twice a week, I stopped in a different competitor’s produce department on the way home. Sometimes it would be for just a few minutes. Other times I found myself lingering for longer periods.
“You found displays you liked, didn’t you?” Kent would press, when we took our coffee breaks on the back dock.
“That’s a good sign. You want to look for things the competition does well. Later, you can use some of those ideas when you put merchandising plans together.
“This will also help you with ordering,” Kent continued.
“Sometimes, competitors share similar lead items, which means our demand will be less than projections, even if our price point is lower.
“It’s also a good exercise just to see their product mix, grades or brands, and prices.”
A good lesson learned. Knowing your competitor helps in dealing with customers and your store manager.
And if the company suits happen to drop by to talk shop? All the better.
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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