I was just a teenager but I remember this scene well.

Your produce tells consumers whether to grab a cart

Armand Lobato
The Produce Aisle

A middle-aged couple came into our store. The man told his wife to hold on about something, which was what made me pay attention in the first place. He walked around, examining the vegetable case. Then he took quick shortcuts between the dry tables. After a couple minutes of this, he looked up at his wife and called out.

“It’s OK, dear,” he said. “Grab a cart.”

I admit, that was the first (and last time) I ever witnessed a customer so blatantly deciding where to shop, based on their opinion of the produce department. However, it’s an image that has always stuck with me.

The customer wasn’t scrutinizing prices or if we had clever signs or fancy decor. He was checking how fresh and full and inviting our produce department was that day.

Assuming that two stores on opposite sides of a traffic intersection have roughly the same product mix and buy similar grades with prices that aren’t too far apart, the reason one store ultimately becomes dominant depends on how well each is managed.

This means how your department is perceived by the majority of customers when they walk into your store, especially at peak shopping periods.

This checklist may not be in their hands, but you can bet it’s in their mindset.

Is the department neat and clean?

Are stock levels full with minimal out-of-stocks?

Does the quality reflect freshness, or does the produce (as customers sometimes say) — look tired?

Is the display consistent throughout, or do customers have to move substandard product to get to the better quality in bottom layers?

How are the pull-by dates in the value-added section?

Can the customer keep the product for a few days or are you trying to push short-dated items?

Is the department constantly culled or just in the morning?

Are the signs neat, accurate and clean?

Tables and scales wiped down frequently?

As a proud produce manager who thought he had all the bases covered, I spoke to a disgruntled customer one day who said she hated shopping at my store. After prodding and listening, I discovered her pet peeve wasn’t quality, as much as we didn’t have enough plastic bags and (especially the “little green twistees”) to tie up her purchases.

For someone with little regard for the twistees (I always tie my plastic bags in knots), this was a bit of a revelation. Soon afterward I added bag stands so customers didn’t have to wander far to find one and kept an extra supply of Twist-Ems near every dispenser.

Anything to convince the arriving customer “it’s OK — grab a cart.”

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 armandlobato@comcast.net.

How has customer interaction influenced the way you run your produce department? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.