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

It’s funny how just hanging around produce people around terminal market coffee shops, or at conventions over an occasional cold libation, I hear things.

Including things I’d rather not hear.

“When I was a produce manager, I had the highest profit margin in the chain. I wouldn’t cull anything unless I absolutely had to. I’d shake up the aging packaged spinach until the decayed leaves weren’t visible and keep it on the shelf. Someone would buy it.”

Yuck. Not funny at all. There are more who joined the fray.

“I created sales where there was none. You know those red ‘ripe’ stickers? I put them on every avocado I had, whether they were ripe or not. We sure sold a lot of stuff that way! Even mushy, overripe avocados sold with a red sticker.”

I’ve seen other unethical ploys too. Signs above regular yellow onions that said they were Vidalia onions — but weren’t.

I remember once stopping in a Sacramento grocer that had a locally grown-signed strawberry display. At the time I knew berries were coming out of the San Diego area (which is more than 500 miles away), I thought the sign was misleading. If anything, a California-grown sign would have been just as effective without compromising the customer’s trust.

Are these actions really unethical? Sure. If it was my sweet old mom or wife doing the shopping, I would be upset if they were in essence tricked into buying something that wasn’t fresh, wasn’t ripe or wasn’t what it was represented to be. It simply isn’t right.

One of the oldest retail tricks is called bait and switch. Out of advertised gala apples and trying to push the full-priced fujis instead? Then you’re guilty. Have you ever stickered conventional produce as organic? Then you’re really asking for trouble.

Ethics extend beyond the produce display areas too. I’ve known produce managers that have raised prices in the system when they shouldn’t or transferred another department’s item to their own to make up for poor performance, who stole pallets of merchandise off of a delivery truck that clearly belonged to a sister store or called in fictitious credits to the distribution center.

If you’re manipulating pricing or invoices, you’re cheating your own company. If you misrepresent produce items to stimulate sales, you’re cheating your customers.

It’s important to remember that after a few poor shopping experiences, consumers will go elsewhere. Eventually, poor produce managers expose themselves and get demoted or even fired.

Some of the best produce managers I supervised had the most average levels of sales and gross profit margins, but they were honest and no matter what did things the right way.

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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