Editor's note: This column is part of a series by Joe Watson, who spent 30-plus years as the director of produce for Rouses Markets and was named Produce Retailer of the Year in 2014. Joe now serves as a vice president of member engagement for PMA.

Retail analyst Kevin Coupe, the keynote speaker at PMA’s Fresh Connections Retail event in April, offered some powerful advice for supermarket retailers: “Make people want to come in stores. Create a differential advantage … Create a relationship with consumers, and keep them locked in. It’s not just about the transaction. It’s about lifetime customer value.”

This advice resonated with me for a few reasons. I believe that retailers often get hung up on the pressure of price. It’s understandable and easy to do. We are wary of comparison shoppers and don’t want to miss out on a sale to a competitor.

Most of us know people who can quote the price of chicken, grapes or other items at various stores, much like they can recite the prices at different gas stations.

But price is just one factor, and retailers can’t sacrifice quality for price. Experience, quality and service are the primary drivers that determine where most customers elect to shop, and they also drive customer loyalty.

Quality trumps a low price. Think of the mom buying grapes for her family. If she buys a bag of grapes for 99 cents/lb but the bottom of the bag is full of shatter and a third of the grapes must be thrown out, is she going to want to come back and repeat purchase? If she spends $1.99/lb but the grapes are in pristine condition and the kids pick the bunch clean, then mom is a hero.

If we make mom, dad or whomever else does the grocery run the hero, they’re going to repurchase.

So what’s a good value? It doesn’t always mean best price. Value is more about quality and the experience a customer has when choosing a product to purchase.

Is your store sterile?

By sterile I don’t mean clean, and I’m not referring to food or produce safety protocols. That’s a topic for another column. What I do mean is, does your store have personality?

As Coupe said at Fresh Connections Retail, “How many supermarkets smell like CVS?” If yours does, that’s not a good thing. The produce (and floral) section is many times the first department shoppers see. We need to set the tone for the shopper experience for the rest of the store.

On a recent visit to Chile, I toured several retailers. One stood out above the rest. That produce department housed a service counter staffed by an in-house produce expert. The person had a deep understanding of how to select, use, prep and store fruits and vegetables and knew where they originated, the seasonality of items and more.

I’ve seen stores in the U.S. with produce butcher stations, but in many cases the staff isn’t knowledgeable about the products. It’s a transactional exchange versus an experience that transcends shopping for produce.

Convenience has many facets

We also hear a lot about convenience these days being a primary driver, but convenience has become somewhat of a buzzword that doesn’t just mean ready-to-eat or offering delivery, and it’s not all about packaging. Convenience is also the ability for a customer to go into a store and having someone help them make better purchasing decisions. Put simply, good service matters.

Imagine if we staffed produce departments with experts who understand more about the products, can answer questions and suggest recipes. That’s next-level service. And teaching consumers something they might not know or might not have considered often leads to sales.

We all have access to purchasing data, but we might be able to learn more through conversations.

Technology and AI advancements will certainly play into how we serve customers, but engagement is the absolute key to building customer loyalty. Have you ever wondered why a produce clerk doesn’t engage the customer? I submit that an employee who seems shy about speaking to customers is less confident in the basic knowledge needed to answer what most times are simple questions related to a produce product or season or taste. There is no price that can be placed on the value created when an associate can positively impact the purchase.

Coupe shared another story with conference participants in April about a retailer that opens a station at 9 a.m. where a person makes fresh guacamole to order. They make a human connection, he said. “They created theater. They take a simple product and make it transcend.”

Execute your own game plan

While imitation may be a form of flattery, it doesn’t help differentiate you. Also, be thoughtful about your approach to determine your department’s competitive advantage and showcase it. As we discussed at the PMA Retail thinkTANK in April, we must not confuse chaos with excitement.

Pick a strategy and execute that strategy and program well. Don’t chase after others.

Whether you create awesome displays with lighting, trendy signage or props, or expand the fresh herb display to create a sensory delight, decide who you want to reach, what they care about, and how to set yourself apart. As a very wise man and a great mentor of mine told me many years ago, “Know who you are and be the best at it.”

Joe Watson is the Produce Marketing Association’s vice president of member engagement for the eastern U.S. He joined PMA in 2015 as vice president of domestic business development and assumed his current role in 2018. As noted earlier, previously Joe was the director of produce for Rouses Markets for 32 years. 

More insight from Joe

Relationships, collaboration, talent investment central to retail success

Building a strategy for seasonal and local produce


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