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Retail View: Produce managers tout autonomy

SAN DIEGO — A clear majority of 10 supermarket produce managers participating at a workshop during the recent United Fresh Produce Association convention claimed to have quite a bit of autonomy when it comes to building displays, featuring local product and sampling product for customers.

The group was representing mostly smaller chains and they were in attendance because they were being honored as being outstanding managers.

While those two facts might skew the results, their overall comments and commitment to their produce departments seemed to indicate that sellers might be missing a key sales opportunity by ignoring in-store personnel.

In fact, when asked by moderator Steve Lutz of The Perishables Group how they would change their department if they were appointed “king for a day,” only one manager said he would like to have more autonomy.

Brett Reed, produce manager of Hy-Vee market, said he “feels like a king everyday” because he has lots of flexibility to do what is best for his department. He even protested when accused of pandering to his boss, who was in the crowd, saying he really did get to make many decisions about the look of his department.

Lavern Clark of Brookshire Grocery Co. in Alexandria, LA, said flexibility at the produce manager level is key to increased sales.

“You can’t run a store from headquarters,” he quipped.

He added that his company has three stores within a three-mile radius and every store has to do something different to cater to its own customers. He spoke of using his own truck to merchandise a product in the store parking lot once.

Rick Hogan, who manages Hugo’s Family Marketplace’s produce department in North Dakota, agreed with Clark. In fact, Hogan, responding to another question from the audience, told grower and shippers that giving a produce manager a free box of produce to let customers sample the product is a great way to increase sales.

Building on that theme, Frankie Thacker of Food City/K-VA-T Food Stores in Rogersville, TN, and the only woman on the panel, said that on every Saturday, a sampler from corporate is in the store to carry out product demos determined by the main office.

“But on Thursday we can sample anything we want,” she said, adding that sampling product for individual customers at any time is encouraged.

Kevin Cazeaux of Rouses Markets in New Orleans said his chain practices a similar strategy when it comes to sampling. “Major demos go through the main office, but we have a very active sampling program every day.”

He added that each produce clerk carries a produce knife and is encouraged to cut a sample for the customer at any time.

These produce managers, each of whom had at least 20 years of experience, seemed adept at increasing produce sales.

Aaron Geohring of Ray’s Food Place in Grants Pass, OR, said the key is that “you have to catch the eye of the consumer.” He advocates building big displays and utilizing the lobby to draw attention to the produce department.

Ryan Acosta of Raley’s Family of Fine Stores in Sacramento, CA, is also a fan of satellite displays throughout the store and in the lobby. He likes to merchandise new items alongside at least one of the top-five volume items to draw attention to it.

Hogan from North Dakota loves tie-in merchandising and said color and the size of the display tend to draw the shopper in for impulse buys.

Reed of Hy-Vee said his customers like recipes and other product information.

Cazeaux of Rouses Markets knows consumers are in a rush and has determined that the average customer is only going to spend a minute or two in his department during their shopping trip.

“I teach my people that they only have two minutes to affect the shopping decisions” of their customers, he said.

Following that same common theme, Nicholas Olivieri of Pathmark in Bethpage, NY, said that driving sales is all about signage, display size and placement. “I like bin displays and massive displays.”

And he said if you really want something to be seen, “put it next to the bananas.”

Interestingly, he said the age of the customer typically determines how much time you have to sell them. On the average, he said younger shoppers don’t want to be bothered with interactions from a produce clerk, but that is a totally different dynamic with seniors. He said they are much more open to interaction and will spend more time browsing the department.

Engaging the customer was a theme touched on by many of the produce managers.

Thacker in rural Tennessee said her chain has a 10-foot rule: If a customer comes within 10 feet of a produce clerk, that clerk is expected to talk with the customer.

Cazeaux said his firm has a three-foot rule, and he called “customer service” the No. 1 trait of a good produce manager.

When the subject came to the local produce movement, almost all of them said it was a trend with legs.

Doug Groendyke of Kings Food Markets in Gillette, NJ, said it speaks to the customers’ desire to know who grew the products they buy. His store promotes the grower with signage.

Acosta of Raley’s agreed that the local angle is a good one to increase sales. However, he said the chain still has to be vigilant to make sure these growers are following all the food-safety guidelines that everyone else is following.

Acosta said using locally grown product increases the need for staffing, since many of these growers have to be walked through the food-safety process, such as third-party audits.

Thacker said there are a lot of local growers in Louisiana, but the chain can only sell product from approved growers.

When it comes to new products, the produce managers urged shippers to take several different steps to help introduce those items.

Manson Camp of Weis Markets in Williamsport, PA, said QR codes are very good as most people have smartphones and that gives them quick access to product information.

Hogan likes tear-off recipe pads, while Thacker said “sampling, good packaging and good pricing” are the keys to moving a new product.

With regard to the biggest change these produce managers have seen during their 20-plus years in the business, Groendyke of Kings said it has to be year-round availability of virtually every item.

Hogan said it was the growth in organic produce. He said many organic produce items in his store are growing at a 30-50 percent annual rate.

Oliveri of Pathmark said the growth in the value-added category sticks out in his mind, while Camp of Weis Markets said it was simply the increase in the number of items sold and the variety of each category.

Geohring of Ray’s Food Place agreed with the variety additions and said that has created a challenge for produce clerks and managers.

He said there are 20 tangerine varieties and asked rhetorically, “How do we get that kind of information to the customer?”