The profit-by-any-means produce manager sifted through the cull box in the back room. His clerk had filled it with bruised apples and a few packages of wilted spinach. He chuckled a bit and with a wink of eye said, “Heh, heh. These are okay to put back on the rack. Someone will buy them.”

I remember this well, for I was that clerk.

This manager had the highest gross-profit percentages in the company. But that fact didn’t mean his methods were ideal, nor his produce department the standard the company wished to emulate. Sales and profit volume declined and the manager was eventually replaced.

And that’s mostly because the produce department wasn’t culled regularly.

What exactly is culling?

Culling is described in one chain’s manual as “the action of sorting product displays to quickly identify and remove distressed or unsaleable product from the top layers of the display.”

The reason a department should be regularly culled is, in one produce manager’s view, “To find any ‘bad stuff’ before our customers do.” Indeed, poor-quality produce repels sales.

Great preparation is only a part of the quality chain

A grocer can instill the best quality-control standards—setting high quality standards, buying top quality, having tough inspection points. But even the best quality standards trickle down to the solitary stock clerk, whose experienced eyes discern what is acceptable at the final selection point in the store.
Repeat after me: A good grocer never hesitates to pull items from a display.

Cultivating Culling Mentality

As the last line of defense, clerks should train all their senses to detect anything out of the ordinary. When a clerk handles a case, it should be easy to see if the cardboard is wet or leaking, indicating poor quality inside. A faint odor of mold is a dead giveaway that something is rotten.

While stocking produce, turn items over to view all angles. Those tomatoes may be picture perfect on top, but underneath? A quick glance will help reveal growth cracks or packing bruises. Overripe or dehydrated items are quickly detected by touch. Catching any poor-quality items at the point of stocking will greatly minimize how much is culled later.

Even though every point of inspection is covered, from buying to stocking, some poor quality will always make its way onto a stand.

Upon finishing stocking a display, straighten it a final time. Usually a few items will need to be culled off the display. Then, take a look at the displays on either side and do the same. Typically there will be something sticking out nearby: a wrinkled pepper, a discolored lime. Toss them into your cull box.

One manager’s helpful hint: “I always keep a leak-proof container underneath my cart—such as an ice tub. This works well to cull into without worrying about anything leaking onto the floor.”

Just because the sell-by date is good doesn’t make it saleable. When sorting through dated product, take a look at the quality inside the package too, and cull if it doesn’t look as fresh as the date would indicate. Note that many chains require culling sell-by items even if there is still some time left on the package.

Culling Frequency

Another manual offers this: “The entire department must be culled prior to store opening and once again between 1 and 4 p.m., in preparation for the evening business.”

That’s sound direction, which can (and some argue should) be improved upon by adding perhaps a mid-morning and before-closing cull. However dictated, constant culling is a must. As author and philosopher Robert Pirsig once put it, “Quality is not a thing, it’s an event.”

Culling Instills Customer Confidence

Whether a customer selects an 8-foot 2-by-4 from the lumberyard to build a fence or a head of romaine from the neighborhood grocer to build a salad, this principle remains the same: A customer should not have to dig through mounds of either to find good quality. Remember that even a single bad item can deter a sale—even if the majority of the display is acceptable.

A customer’s perception of quality is only as strong as what you have placed before them. Culling is simply the final step of a good, quality chain of events.
Or to put it simply: If you wouldn’t take it home and serve it to your own sweet momma—cull it!