Last week we explored why having the right stock-keeping units was more important that having numerous SKUs customers don’t want or need. Large produce department or small, following this philosophy can certainly help improve sales, ease space allocation worries and reduce shrink.

That leads us to a new topic: What else empowers a produce manager?

I recall when working my way through the ranks, the two primary reasons to become a produce manager were:

  • control of one’s work schedule; and
  • merchandising the way you saw fit.

Since the first reason has its limitations (still have to work most weekends, long hours, etc.) this really leaves the second reason as the single driving factor to push for the management spot. Merchandising is what most managers point to as the “fun” in their jobs.

There isn’t anything else that quite compares to sitting down with a cup of coffee in one hand and a blank drawing of the department in the other. This is akin to Van Gogh with a blank canvas or Michelangelo with an unchiseled block of marble. It’s time to sketch the merchandising changes out on the pad, using the following week’s ad plan as a guide.

Or is it?

Many chains have their own version of chiseled-in-stone merchandising plans. And, as also mentioned last week, cookie-cutter plans don’t always work in every neighborhood. Produce managers ultimately get a good feel for what works in their location and where are the hot, high traffic flow areas.

Unfortunately, what looks good detailed on a schematic sent from a distant corporate office may not work out nearly as effectively, had the produce manager been given a little more say in the matter.

This isn’t to suggest the produce manager be given complete control over the merchandising, but at least have some flexibility. When produce managers were given complete merchandising reign, I saw both wonderful — and awful — results.

So what’s the solution?

I don’t know for certain, but it seems the veteran, superstar produce managers that follow basic guidelines, grow sales and turn in healthy profits should be rewarded with increased autonomy.

Meanwhile, those who exhibit less creativity should be allowed designated areas of the store to experiment with, while otherwise sticking to a corporate plan.

And the guy who’s good at following direction but not at all the creative type? Best to reserve the most detailed pre-drawn plans for him, until he gains enough experience and confidence to take off the training wheels.

Merchandising is certainly the fun part of being a produce manager. Potentially it is a profitable methodology for a grocery chain. We just need to determine among the talent the factors of “who” and “how much” fun can be doled out.

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. E-mail

Do you have free reign as a produce manager? Do you have to work within corporate-prescribed boundaries? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.

Know when looser reins are needed in merchandising

Armand Lobato
The Produce Aisle