I walked into a Wal-Mart store last night and a SuperTarget store today, and I have to vent that the experience bugged me.

While I’m no stranger to the utilitarian look of many modern produce departments, the thing that struck me about visiting the produce departments in both of those stores was the truly Spartan nature of merchandising displays.

For example, at Wal-Mart, there was a free standing display with a hot, attention-getting apple retail of $1 per pound. The only problem is that the consumer has no idea what bi-color variety is represented in the bin, since there is absolutely no point of sale signage that would provide any clues. Sure, you can try to divine the variety by checking the PLU, but RSS label was illegible to my 50-year old eyes, if not the infrared scanner.

I guess the thought is we don’t’ go to Wal-Mart to become educated about the wonderful new varieties of produce provided by the chain’s awesome grower/shippers.  We go to Wal-Mart to get apples – any apples – at $1 per pound. It could be the first of March or mid-September; the apples and other commodities wait for us in unremarkable repose.

Retailers couldn’t think of one darn thing to say about those lemons/pears/potatoes, other than the fact they are x dollars per pound. You are looking for the superstars of the food pyramid? Perhaps you have come to the wrong place.

At Wal-Mart, Target and too many other retailers, the produce department has become a sterile landscape of commodities in bins with price signs grudgingly accessorized with country of origin information.

The subtle message, in the spirit of Obi-Wan, is: “These aren’t the apples/oranges/grapes you’re looking for.”
“Move along.”

My health club gets the value of merchandising,  Signs everywhere in Prairie Life Fitness facility proclaim the value of exercise to one’s health (30 minutes of exercise daily reduces the risk of colon cancer 38 %!), making the fitness club membership fee seem like a bargain indeed.

But in the produce departments today, where is the visual clue to consumers that these apples, by God, were fruit that consumers should be excited about? Where was the hand written sign “NEW CROP GALAS!” sign?  

Where is the magic of fresh produce, where is the story, the description of variety, where is the face of the grower that shipped the food? Where are the health messages that bolster the appeal of fruits and veggies?

One reason that the local food movement has gained momentum is that a connection is established between the shopper and the farmer. Whether CSA or farmers markets, there is an exchange of information, a connection that is all about the moment, the freshness of local food.

Is it too much to ask? I think retailers who are periodically bringing in their suppliers into the department and creating a connection with consumers are on the right track.

If Wal-Mart is moving 5%, 10% or 15% of U.S. produce and doing nothing to create excitement within the department other than offering everyday low prices, perhaps it is time for suppliers to step up and be tasked with overseeing merchandising efforts within the store. I wonder if a national promotion board could also become a vehicle to assist with the messaging – and the magic - within the department.