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Are produce directors working on selling or putting out fires?

By
Ron Pelger

Problems are something in the produce business that will never be eliminated.

Do you know what I used to hate the most as a produce director? Interruption problems. I’m talking about those annoying problems that cause a work stoppage in the middle of an overloaded schedule of endless daily management demands.

Every produce director knows what I mean by interruption problems. It’s like someone pulls a lever that sets off a blinding red flashing light along with a deafening foghorn. That’s the signal that shuts down any sales activity we’re currently working on to grab the fire extinguisher.

One scenario that’s really annoying takes place while teaching produce employees the fundamentals of different types of displays. That’s when the store speakers sound like Yankee Stadium paging the produce director. Instead of Bob Sheppard, former longtime voice of Yankee Stadium, on the other end is the secretary with those dreaded words: “We have a problem.”

In talking with produce directors today, the most common issue they lament is the daily drudge of “putting out fires.” It takes away an extensive amount of time from the most important part of the daily work schedule — selling.

Planning a daily work schedule normally lists assignments like developing a weekly ad program, attending a sales meeting, seeing vendors, studying analytical reports and visiting stores. The list doesn’t include putting out “interrupted fire problems.”

Did anyone expect COVID-19 to erupt in flames? When it hit the flames rapidly spread. That was a major interruption in everyone’s daily work schedule. It became the top priority at the time, placing sales elsewhere on the list for produce directors. Selling became a large-scale problem in itself with product shortages, sensitive handling rules, stocking maintenance and food safety.

When the smoke cleared and the selling frame of mind returned, guess what still prevailed? Putting out fires. The flames grew even higher because of worker shortages. With less help, some of the problems could only be temporarily patched while others were left to burn.

We need to get back to selling produce versus trying to put out every single fire. So how do we handle the dilemmas and the interruption problems? We need to consider each problem carefully and decide which are important and which are moderate.

Here are some various stages of interruption problem fires to consider in making your decision on which to act on at different levels:

  • Smoldering fires — These problems aren’t really fires. They are smoke without flames and may not need immediate quenching. Keep an eye out for a flame and return to selling.
  • Patch-it fires — These are minor and may just take a phone call with a solution that will patch the problem and hold it until a future date for total repair. Return to selling.
  • Trash can fires — These are fires that are contained and eventually burn out on their own. It’s like a case of lettuce with two heads that are showing decay, but the rest are in good condition. Discard the two bad heads and move on with selling the rest.
  • Wildfires — This is when an interruption problem flares up rapidly and starts to spread uncontrollably. That’s the time to drop everything, including selling, to call in the crew and stop the flames from increasing further.

There are all sorts of problems that rise up at every level of the produce business. That’s understandable. Problems happen, but the produce director should not have to stop in the middle of selling produce to coddle every single patch-it or smoldering problem. Getting calls for two bad heads of lettuce is not COVID-19.

The general job description of a produce director states the responsibilities as follows:

The produce director is responsible for the development of produce sales programs and the attainment of budgeted produce sales and gross profit margins established by senior management. The produce director is also responsible for every phase of the company produce operation, including procurement, inventory assets, retailing, merchandising, shrink control and presentation at store level.

It says nothing about spending most of the time putting out fires.

Ron Pelger is a produce industry adviser and industry writer. He can be contacted at 775-843-2394 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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