(Photos courtesy of Rob Ybarra)
Rob Ybarra has been in retail for more than 30 years, spending his first decade in produce roles, his next decade as a store director, and the most recent chunk in executive positions in produce.
The majority of his career has been with H-E-B, and he joined Coborn’s in 2018. He developed a love of retail early, having hung out in stores with his dad — then the produce manager of an H-E-B in Brownsville, Texas — since he was a young child. His first official job in retail was as a produce clerk for H-E-B in 1981.
One of the defining periods in Ybarra’s lengthy career was working with H-E-B’s stores in Mexico, which hammered home the importance of what Ybarra calls merchandising to the neighborhood.
“You can’t do a cut-and-paste, the stores can’t look the same everywhere ... In some neighborhoods it was really upscale, and then in some neighborhoods it was blue-collar working folks that needed lower prices on items, and so you have to merchandise it differently, and I think today that still holds true. You can’t be a cookie-cutter department, or even a cookie-cutter store.
“The other thing is, rich or poor, customers, guests, they want their product fresh, and so you have to make sure through the growing practices, through the cold chain, through the way you handle the items in the stores, to the way you merchandise in the stores, to the way you refrigerate items or (don’t) refrigerate items — I believe that all that takes a part of making sure that at the end of the day, your customer, your guest, is buying the freshest produce that’s going to last the most amount of time at their home, and that’s what we strive for each and every day.”
Ybarra wants shoppers to be able to tell from the moment they walk into the store that the department has that freshness they are seeking. He also wants them to be able to easily tell what the store is recommending based on how it has the fruits and vegetables displayed.
“My goal is for all of our stores to impress upon what’s in season, what’s a great value ... Customers, they count on us to keep them informed through merchandising on what’s in season or what’s nature’s best flavor today, and we strive to do that each and every day. It’s definitely not easy to do, but we try to drive that consistent message throughout all of our stores, all of our departments, so our guests can have that same experience.”
Over Ybarra’s time in the industry, the definition of great customer service has broadened. Whereas it used to simply mean a clean department and everything in stock and perfectly fresh, now it also requires a broader assortment and communicating meal solutions.
“What we try to impress upon our own teammates is ask the customers, ‘What are you having for dessert today?’ Perhaps it’s a gold sweet pineapple that’s at the peak of flavor and you combine that with some vanilla ice cream, or July is watermelon, watermelons are plentiful, how about some watermelon and you sprinkle a little bit of the Tajin seasoning over (it) ... Those are the things that I believe our guests are looking for now, is they’re looking for suggestions, they’re looking for ideas, they’re looking really to figure out what’s for dinner, and so I think customer service has evolved to that sense.”
The million-dollar question, of course, is how to get all employees invested and engaged to that level. Coborn’s has gotten its human resources development team involved with training for its produce personnel.
“It really starts from the top, and I have a lot of support for driving home that guest engagement from Emily Coborn, our VP of fresh, so we get a lot of support from her to make sure that our teammates are trained so they can help the customers with whatever they need and whatever they’re looking for ... I think at the end of the day that’s what’s going to keep us alive in the era of online shopping.”
Ybarra has been looking forward to what he calls 100 Days of Summer, a stretch from roughly Memorial Day to Labor Day, when the produce department really has an opportunity to shine.
“July, who can beat cherries, who can beat stone fruit, who can beat the watermelons, the melons, the grapes – for us, for me, it’s nirvana, these 100 days, it really is. I’m excited about what’s to come.”
One way to take advantage of the summer’s bounty and encourage impulse sales is by doing lots of sampling, whether live or silent.
“I want all our guests to sample the cherries. I don’t want them to be looking around to see who’s looking, to see ‘Can I take one or not’ ... If you sample and the product tastes great, they’re going to buy, so we’re going to really push live sampling, or silent sampling ... When I see those silent demos going and working, it really does give me goosebumps because that’s a guest that maybe wouldn’t have bought that cherry or that large Sweet Sensation grape, but since they tasted it, they’re going to buy it, and so that’s a job well done, in my opinion.”
Coming up on his first anniversary with Coborn’s, Ybarra has been emphasizing two key elements for produce managers — have fun selling, and write the perfect order, with the latter meaning have a firm handle on your inventory and only order what you need so that all product is as fresh as possible. Those two fundamentals are the foundation for more layers of education to come.
“Once we get to writing that perfect order, we’re going to be that much closer to having the perfect department in terms of freshness.”