Long ago, in a market far, far away ...

Food used to be sold in specialty shops — dairies, bakeries, meat markets, general merchandise, even drug stores. Produce was loaded into mule-drawn wagons in my hometown of Denver from numerous outlying family truck farms that set up shop near downtown along the Platte river.

Then, as we all know, someone (credit is attributed to several businessmen) came up with the idea of combining different types of operations under one roof for ease of shopping convenience. The “super” market was born.

Fast-forward to today, and the modern supermarket is a dazzling spread of so much more than those early offerings. Today’s chains push features such as banks, post offices, online order pickup and delivery; perishable departments that promote everything from cake decorating to catering. 

And the dominant draw that customers base their shopping choice upon? The produce department.

How cool is that? Amid all the technology and trends that affect our livelihood there’s a lot to be said about putting your best foot forward with fresh produce.

Which raises the question: Just how committed is your company, your chain, your district manager, your store manager when it comes to produce department support? Can there be any hesitation in the answer? Why wouldn’t you do everything possible to make sure the produce manager has everything he or she needs to be successful?

Of course, many executives in the business attest to providing full support.

However, behind the scenes, at trade events, in breakrooms and back docks where produce types gather for a morning cup of coffee, the talk is often about less. Less hours, less resources, less space, less training. 

In many markets with tired displays and depleted shelves, it shows.

I can’t say how many times I used to race the clock to set up the produce department in the morning. And I couldn’t help but notice the extra bodies working in the deli. “How can this be?” I wondered. “I do triple the sales that they do, and there’s six of them and one of me.” 

Even challenging this point to the store manager did little good. It was all about time and budgets and wage effective rates that probably only made sense to some distant bean counter who never stocked a case of produce in his life.

If the quality of the produce and the highest service standards offered within the produce department are truly the single biggest draw to attract, retain customers and build business, perhaps a management re-awakening is in order.

That would surely redefine what a super-market is all about.

Armand Lobato works for the Idaho Potato Commission. His 40 years’ experience in the produce business span a range of foodservice and retail positions. E-mail him at lobatoarmand@gmail.com.

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