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

The produce director arrived early at our store. He was there to lead the quarterly, holiday-themed meeting that morning with the dozen or so produce managers in our district.

My crew and I worked especially hard at making sure we were in good shape for the rendezvous. All of our displays were full, sanitation was complete and we were on top of all company programs.

After he walked the produce sales floor and seemed to be happy with merchandising and stock conditions (he didn’t say much unless there was a problem), he walked through our backroom cooler.

The director didn’t spend much time there either. He inspected some warehouse stickers, opened a box or two. Then, on his way up to the conference room he stopped and asked what time our produce load was due that day.

I smiled as I answered, “The load? It’s already here, and put away.”

It was at that point I knew I was evolving into a decent order writer. As a produce manager, inventory management is the single biggest responsibility. Order too little and you risk losing sales and all the gross profit margin that is necessary to keep an operation afloat. Order too much and the produce tends to sit around, become damaged and go from fresh to not-so-fresh.

Having too much inventory on hand also creates a logjam. Nobody on the crew can easily tell what inventory needs to be stocked first. I’ve been in some chaotic backrooms during new store openings where clerks couldn’t even push a stock cart into the cooler, much less find needed product.

Overstocked or disorganized coolers create all sorts of problems besides low stock conditions. Storage temps are out of sync. Chill-sensitive items remain cold and buried, while high-respiration items are withering away outside the cooler. Sales are lost while shrink increases. For everyone involved, this is a heart-rending scene.

Experience develops ordering skills. It takes time to find the right ordering rhythm, which results from recognizing shopping patterns: What sells in a given neighborhood, how ads affect sales or how remerchandising increases (or decreases) movement. In all scenarios, the produce manager must react quickly with ordering adjustments.

Accurate ordering is an ongoing challenge, but for the produce manager that commits him or herself to the task, the rewards are obvious: sales grow and become consistent, and shrink is kept in check, while stock clerks can easily navigate the cooler to load up what they need. And the produce manager can write subsequent orders with ease. Not to mention, a neat backroom means less stress for everyone.

Summed up for us by early 20th Century German novelist, social critic and 1929 Nobel laureate Thomas Mann, “Order and simplification are the first steps toward the mastery of a subject.”

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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