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  • Writer's pictureMark Mulcahy

Great Expectations

Updated: Jan 20, 2021

A conversation I often have with general managers, owners, and produce managers these days concerns how to take their produce to the next level. My usual answer to the question is multi-layered, depending on where the department is at that moment.

A conversation I often have with general managers, owners, and produce managers these days concerns how to take their produce to the next level. My usual answer to the question is multi-layered, depending on where the department is at that moment.

Questions to ask yourself: Are you meeting all of your financial goals? Do you have good systems in place? How is department accountability? Is the manager managing—or babysitting? Is there a clearly stated mission for the department? Does the crew know this mission? Do you have a regular and thorough cleaning program? Is there a strong training program?

If the answer to any one of those questions is "no," that's where we start when aiming for the next level. After all, building a strong foundation is essential to any successful department. If the answer to all of these questions is "yes," then I follow up with even more questions:

Do you have a thorough handbook and easy-to-use ordering and pricing spreadsheets, so you can pass all this on to the next leader when the current one leaves? Are you growing future leaders within the department?

If you can still answer "yes," then it's time to look at some new ideas. We all know that a good sampling program is essential to growing sales, yet too few departments have a regular, daily program. You should have, at minimum, one sampling per day during peak hours.

Another idea along these lines is to demonstrate the housewares that you have cluttering your department. If you're thinking, "Mark has lost his mind," think again. How much real estate does this stuff take up? Now, consider what sort of impact it could have on your sales if people really bought it. Recently, I came across a supermarket produce department that was demonstrating pineapple corers. When I asked if people were buying them, the clerk said the store had been doing this demo for a week and had to reorder more corers - but best of all, they quadrupled their pineapple sales. If housewares fall under general merchandise, sit down with whoever manages the category and come up with a plan to increase the turns on this inventory.

Next, ask yourself if your clients are satisfied with the job you do in your department. If you say yes, then ask if being satisfied is good enough. It shouldn't be! "Satisfied" generally means the store doing the survey did enough to make sure customers weren't unhappy. Your goal should be to exceed customer expectations every day! That means anticipating what they want and delivering before they ask for it.

Do you have enough scales in your department? Most don't. Why does it matter? Because a large per cent of "heavy" organic buyers have household incomes of less than $30,000, and that means they are looking for value. The more scales you have, the easier it is for them to determine the cost of what they are buying.

Are you up on the latest produce health trends? Many of your customers are! In the next few years, you are going to see tremendous interest in the produce-health connection. A next-level step would be to gather information, make copies of articles (or suggest links) and put them near a display of the produce item associated with it. Provide easy-to-use recipes and, again, offer samples of the item.

Time for a review

We all know that gas prices aren't going down, and this is changing shopping patterns. People are starting to shop less frequently, but buy more when they do. So, a review of your "wow" effect is in order. Are you doing everything you can to start the shopping experience when the customer walks in the door? Are your displays stopping them? Are you creating sales with strong cross-merchandising?

Review your competition, and not just the local grocery that has increased its organic offerings. They are important, but you also may want to look beyond the produce department to see what may be affecting sales. With folks stretched for time and with prepared meals being easy and convenient, we need to reinforce and reconnect people to the ease and value of eating fresh produce at home. That may mean more fresh cut offerings, or "What's for dinner?" programs that provide easy solutions – perhaps even joining forces with your local Slow Food chapter ( to promote the ideas of honouring the local food sources and the value of participating in our food preparation each day.

Customers are looking for an emotional connection to the departments, stores, and the brands they buy from. Are you providing that? According to a Gallup research poll on retailers, "If you don't make an emotional connection with customers, then satisfaction is worthless." More and more customers want to buy from companies whose values are like their own. Among your core customers, you can already ride the emotional connection coattails of your store's image, but what about other customers? Are you promoting yourself and all the great things you stand for in your department? You probably do more local sourcing than your competition does. Do you promote your local program as well as you can? Do you have packaging guidelines that are more environmentally-friendly? Do you get fresh produce six days a week? How about offering a freshness guarantee? If you are doing the best quality control, you should stand by it.

Let folks know that your store is the place that defines their values. And when you have done all of these things, it's time to get out of the store, let the world know who you are, and prove your value to the community. We have what people want - we just need to take a critical look at ourselves and exceed our great expectations.

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