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In the Trenches: Poor department conditions will worsen with management denial

Ron Pelger

Managing a produce department today can either be fun or frustrating. To wit: A customer enters a store and requests to see the produce manager. He strolls out of the back room and greets the customer.

Produce manager: “Can I help you miss?”

Customer: “Do you have any wilted lettuce, moldy strawberries, wrinkled peppers, or spoiled tomatoes?”

Produce manager: “No, we do not.”

Customer: “Well, you had them yesterday.”

In this scenario, the produce manager walked into a land mine. How embarrassing would that situation be if you were told that from a customer? Was that customer’s message clear cut? Did that produce manager fully comprehend it? How would you visualize the department during that customer’s shopping experience?

Perhaps the embittered customer was sarcastic and intimidating. Regardless, it evidently revealed that the produce department must have been in disarray the previous day.

Many produce managers start their work day between 5 and 7 a.m. and depart between 2 and 4 p.m. This leaves one or two full-time and a few part-time employees scheduled later in the day. In some cases, only part-time workers are left to cover the department until closing.

Peak traffic hours in a supermarket are from 4 to 7 p.m. During this time product is handled the most by customers. It is a volatile time when displays become depleted, items are strewn about, packages broken and sensitive product left damaged. If not properly managed and controlled, it places the department in a shambles.

I cannot overemphasize enough how serious it is to lose control over a produce department during rush hour shopping. I learned that the hard way in my earlier days as a produce manager.

Too often conditions become permissive by management, using the busy period as an excuse allowing the situation to worsen.

One of the reasons a customer may feel a produce department has lousy product is the manifested condition. Then those same customers head for the nearest competitors seeking a fresher and more organized shopping experience.

When management resists facing the warning signs of a defective and repetitive condition, it escalates out of control. If no action is implemented to correct it, the operation is in deep trouble.

Grocers always boast about their freshness, quality and service. When distressed department conditions begin to take effect, humbling management denial becomes a common practice. Accepting that is a serious problem. Those poor conditions can impact sales and eventually lose money for a company.

These are not easy times. Retailers are facing a number of challenges such as alluring customers, maintaining a customer base, keeping up with shopping trends and controlling steady operating conditions. Any pitfalls in these areas can induce business failures.

Operators need to take proactive measures to avert produce department distress by preserving its high standards during the busiest shopping hours.

Not sure what to do and where to start? Consider these four steps to prevent failures:

1. Recognize the weakness

Watch for those warning signs that may be casually surfacing. Turmoil conditions do not happen out of the blue. They faintly rise up  unnoticed and slowly escalate throughout the department. Identify it early, stop it and fix it fast.

2. Face the facts

Avoid denying that a condition problem exists. Admit and face up to it. Denying it only makes matters worse. Drop the excuses too.

3. Take immediate action

As the old saying goes, “Take the bull by the horns.” Find the causes fast. What actually happens in the department between those high activity shopping hours? See the action for yourself. Teach and train the workers proper rules of department maintenance, especially part-time employees. Give them clear guidelines on how to keep product straightened and organized on displays. This is an ongoing task throughout the day and especially requires more attention during the ultimate part of the shopping day. 

4. Be competitive

Some may wonder what this has to do with competition. Retailers compete in ads, pricing, product assortment, quality, cleanliness, service, ambiance and other factors. Competing with produce department conditions is also high on a customer’s preference in choosing their store. Don’t just maintain the conditions, compete with it.

Stop being blindsided if a shopper gripes to you. If you ignore a single criticism from a customer, you are in deep trouble. You only make money if those customers keep shopping with you.

Ron Pelger is the owner of RonProCon, a produce industry advisory firm. He is also a produce industry merchandising director and a freelance writer. He can be contacted at 775-843-2394 or by e-mail at

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