I was returning from grocery shopping when Russ T. Blade nosed his way from within the pantry. “Rusty” is the miniature imaginary produce manager who occasionally drops by to talk shop.

Rusty: You don’t look like your old chipper self today. Bad shopping experience?

Me: Oh yeah. My store’s produce department seems to get worse all the time. The place was a shambles again today. It was nearly midday and the crew was just starting to get caught up.

Rusty: Let me guess: Lots of loaded produce carts staged on the sales floor, low or empty stock conditions everywhere, and —

Me: And nobody doing much to fix anything. Oh sure, the few clerks on duty were working. Slowly. They just weren’t working in any logical order.

Rusty: They were doing the “Let’s fix this rear table first,” then the “We’ll stock the next table” routine, right?

Me: Exactly. One table was in decent shape. Meanwhile, staples and ad items were ignored. Customers weren’t saying much, but they were also putting little produce in their carts.

Rusty: Three things are wrong with this picture. First, clerks have to do a kind of triage on a decimated produce department. Some areas like you describe need immediate attention. What’s the term? Oh yeah. A sense of urgency.

Me: A little hustle would go a long way, no matter what the reason.

Rusty: Second, clerks can’t reassemble a produce department together one fixture at a time. If they’re stocking dry goods in the rear of the department, that’s tomorrow’s sales. They need to work on the here and now, what’s needed to satisfy the shoppers at hand.

Me: So, what’s the third point?

Rusty: The third point is, who’s in charge? When things are this fouled up it’s usually the absence of a produce manager, or a weak one. A good department head can easily identify these flaws and start redirecting the efforts. “Steve, you have the wet rack. Rick, cover the out-of-stocks and ad items along with Maureen; when you’ve caught up split up and work front to back.”

Me: I’d like to think the store manager has a role to play here.

Rusty: The few times I’ve walked into such a mess, the first thing I did was communicate with the store manager. They were always good about freeing up a body or two to help us catch up, even if it was just hauling trash or covering easy-to-stock items like bananas.

Me: I hate to see produce departments in bad stock condition.

Rusty: Me too. We need every sale and take pride in our produce department. My goal is to make darn sure we never even get close to this point. 

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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