Photo courtesy of Aldi

In this final week of 2023, cast a critical eye on your produce operation

Don Harris

As the end of the year approaches, it’s a good time to take stock of your operation and do a full review to identify strengths and weaknesses and ways to improve the overall operation.

An innovative produce retailer is always looking for ways to improve the operation and will undertake this analysis to provide an honest, objective evaluation, avoiding any emotional complications. There must be no preconceived notions (no “sacred cows”) for this process to be effective, and one must remain totally impartial to all aspects of the operation.

To be effective and get a clear picture of the operation, one must break the operation into its various segments, including product, distribution, transportation and merchandising.

Product: Every part of the operation depends upon the product. When one evaluates product, it is important to look for any areas of improvement. Are you buying from the right people? Are you buying at the right time? Are you purchasing in the right places during each produce season? Are you taking steps throughout your supply chain to protect the quality of your product? This should include reviewing your receiving procedures and your physical facilities and ability to maintain the quality.

A part of this review includes looking at the personnel who are doing the purchasing. Determine if they are doing a proper job of planning, developing proactive responses instead of knee-jerk reactions, and handling crisis situations. This can be enlightening and will provide good input for evaluating your personnel and preparing reviews that are not critical, but are constructive.

It’s time to critically review your produce operation, including product, distribution, transportation and merchandising.

Distribution: This is a key area and must be examined to ensure every possible activity is being used to efficiently distribute the product. Earlier, we mentioned the importance of warehouse receiving and a program that reflects the quality standards you have set for your operation. This will require training receivers as to the proper procedure of inspection. Additional importance should be placed upon the training of employees selecting the product for shipment to the stores to ensure a proper product is reaching retail.

Another aspect that needs scrutiny is the facility itself. Are there any structural issues relating to maintenance and temperature? Are the ripening facilities for bananas and other fruits in proper condition to produce a quality product? Also, there should be an honest evaluation of the working relationship between your department and the management of warehouse and distribution.

Transportation: This segment must be evaluated in two parts. The first would be the transportation from source of supply to the warehouse, with an emphasis on the use of the proper trucking company, delivery performance, proper load formation, routing of pickups, and quality of equipment used to transport the product.

After this is examined, you should look at your warehouse-to-store transportation segment and determine if the present schedule is efficient in terms of getting the delivery to the store. Then, you should also evaluate each store as to the number of deliveries they should receive each week.

Make sure all equipment is sound and protects produce quality. Also determine if the delivery personnel are doing a proper job of unloading and storing the product upon arrival at the store. This area is often overlooked as something that does not directly concern produce management, but it must be reviewed along with the rest of the transportation segment.

Merchandising: Examine your merchandising strategy to make sure it provides clear direction and can be easily executed by employees. Review the scheduling to make sure labor hours are being maximized to efficiently display product in the most appealing manner while protecting the quality. You must evaluate all produce personnel including supervisors, managers and staff as to their ability to perform their jobs efficiently and creatively. During this review, you should measure the “buy in” of everyone to the strategy and be sure to measure their inclusion in decision-making and department operation.

This should be an in depth, critical look at your retail operation to be sure all involved can take advantage of other aspects of the supply chain to provide a superior presentation.

It is difficult to place a dollar value on this review, however this action will provide identification of key areas and targets for improving every aspect of your operation. It is vital that this review and evaluation be done in an objective and thorough manner to ensure you can uncover areas of key opportunity.

The best operators in the industry are always looking for ways to improve their operations. This type of exercise can provide not only a snapshot of where your operation is presently, but what can be done to take it to the next level.

Don Harris is a 41-year veteran of the produce industry, with most of that time spent in retail. He worked in every aspect of the industry, from “field-to-fork” in both the conventional and organic arenas. Harris is presently consulting. 



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