MILWAUKIE, Ore. — You wouldn’t think just adding a photo of a mobile phone would make such a drastic difference in participation.

But for the Pear Bureau Northwest’s Pear University merchandising training, mobile was essential, says Kathy Stephenson, communications manager.

“We added a photograph of a smart phone with the merchandising training on the screen,” she says.

That’s it — a photo.

The small, seemingly-obvious change actually means a lot for employees whose “office” may be a cramped back room, if they have a work space outside the sales floor and storage rooms, Stephenson says. It’s hard for in-store personnel to find time on a computer at work, but most of them do have a smart phone.

The pear bureau also changed the program to offer it as a turnkey solution for retailers to brand and send out through internal communications.Those two tweaks are helping the program gain traction.

Boosting the signal

Participation in the training went from a few dozen the first year to a few hundred last year and now, this year to date more than 800 people have earned their “degree” in pear merchandising.

“I think the program is very, very easy to use, especially now that you can do it on your cell phone,” says Jon Clements, director of produce for Pittsburgh-based Kuhn’s Markets.

The pear bureau has always encouraged in-store training, and takes advantage of in-store opportunities whenever possible, Stephenson says.

“In the old days we had people in the  field that would go and train and do this, but retailers don’t want to do that anymore,” she says. “If we have someone in the field, we aren’t afraid to take a moment to walk the merchandiser through the pear category, but to get it on the scale that would provide the most benefit to the pear grower, we went online.”

The digital component was a major draw for Cleveland-based Heinen’s, says produce merchandiser Dan Haverlock. Haverlock says Heinen’s opened the program to any associate working in produce departments, from managers down to part time high school associates. Store management also was made aware of the program and encouraged to take part.

“The biggest thing that appealed to me about the program is the simplicity to touch a lot of associates,” Haverlock says.

Institutional knowledge shift

Clements says while many retailers “grew up” in produce with experienced mentors, the newest generation seems to respond better to other methods. Once participants pass the program’s exit exam, a short quiz based
on content covered in the 10- to 20-minute session, they’re issued a paper certificate of completion for their personnel file, Stephenson says.

They also get a Pear University hat for fun, she says. Clements says the certificate actually has been impactful for his employees.

“Programs like this give them a feeling of involvement,” he says. “Those that take the course take it seriously. I’ve had them challenge me on my pear knowledge.”

 Jeff Cady, director of produce for Tops Friendly Markets, Williamsburg, N.Y. said he encourages store merchandisers, produce managers and inspectors to take the course to ensure that everyone on the team is on the same page with best practices.

“The few I have talked to spoke of learning many things they didn’t know and appreciated the fact that we gave them the opportunity to take the course,” he says. 

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