The comedian Jimmy Durante used to quip, “Everybody wants ta get inta da act!”

The act, as far as this produce scribe attempts to comment on every week, is the produce aisle. The often under-space-allocated and understaffed produce section. You know, the department that fuels the grocery store with the strongest profit margins.

The “everybody” I refer to is companies representing every product from dried tomatoes to croutons to, well, you name it. There’s an entourage of sales reps waiting to visit produce buyers or directors every week.

The reason is obvious. Marketers have long experienced how well their products sell, once they win any inch of space allocation near, around, or within the produce department. 
Likewise, produce managers experience some inner-department product placement insights. Long on baby carrots? Work a display next to your best-selling lettuce. The accessibility and color break will spark impulse sales.

Same goes for the non-produce stock-keeping units.

Non-produce items in the produce aisle
(Photo by Armand Lobato)
One act, numerous scenes. When produce departments obtain ownership and oversee placement of non-produce items — such as in this Jewel Osco in Chicago — these often complement and help drive fresh produce sales.

I was in a Jewel Osco in downtown Chicago recently. The neat, clean inner-city store rocked with high volume, despite having a compact footprint. Within the near grand-opening-looking produce section were displays of all sorts of non-produce items complementing the fresh offerings nearby. 

The store smartly shoehorned racks of dressings, salad toppings, dried herbs and more into every reachable display space above, behind or below the fresh produce displays.

Not only do these products move well, but they typically command a premium price and return a hefty profit margin for the produce manager’s bottom line. (Unlike similar or lesser-quality grocery-placed products, whose margins are often in low, single digits). 

Further, products that win produce department category ownership and placement generally help drive fresh produce sales as well.

The danger I see is when the cross-merchandising overwhelms the fresh produce. For example, I once allowed a vanilla wafer salesman to put “a few cases” beneath my banana display, only to return later and discover he built a near-monument to the wafers, engulfing my banana end cap. That was the last time I gave anyone such leeway.

We know fresh produce is the star to which everyone wants to hitch their wagon. I suppose that it’s a little like items in a salad bar. If you place pudding in the bar, the perception is that if it’s next to cut vegetables, the pudding must be a healthy choice too. And sell it does.

Same goes for the non-produce items in the produce department, I suspect. Whatever the purchasing rationale, if something helps drive overall produce sales and strengthen gross profit margins, I give it a standing ovation.  

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 [email protected].


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