How has COVID-19 affected the fresh produce sector in the UK?
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Is there a more valuable fresh produce player than the retail merchandiser?

Don Harris

What makes a good merchandiser at retail? There are several opinions that vary by experience and perception. Upper management says a good merchandiser is one who generates sales and profit projections, plus controls cost. In the produce world, the definition of a good merchandiser is considerably different, although it does contain parts of what upper management covets.

But the definition and requirements for produce merchandisers are far more complicated. In the world of retail produce, they are key figures who:

  • Formulate and execute successful merchandising and sales strategy.
  • Possess specific skillsets, including a vivid imagination, and innovative and creative minds.
  • Have a knack for positive risk taking and be forward-looking.
  • The ability to present produce, making maximum use of their color and natural beauty.
  • And they must take all of their artistic inspiration and prepare promotional activity that is customer-driven.

It’s easy to see why it’s so hard to find an individual that fits all these criteria. Compounding this problem is the fact that these requirements are only part of the total picture of a good merchandiser. While having all these traits is a good start, there are other parts of the equation that are needed to fully round out this individual and provide the potential to become a great merchandiser.

The second set of skills needed by our potentially great merchandiser are more basic to the performance of his duties. First on this list, is the ability to sell product. In this area, they must be able to balance pricing strategy to drive sales but also, equally important, drive additional volume or units. This takes a particular feel for market conditions, competitive activity and consumer trends. This is accomplished by doing complete research into the marketplace and all the dynamics involved.

This also requires a superior grasp of product knowledge and what it takes to keep each variety of produce at its top level of freshness. This includes the proper care and handling of the product in the back room as well as establishing standards for quality — from receiving at the warehouse to the back door and, ultimately, on the sales floor. To obtain these goals, a merchandiser must provide accurate and timely information on all products to every member of the team and, once this information is supplied, plan and generate a training program to convey these skills to the rest of the operation. This action requires communication skills to accurately convey the actions needed to achieve the goals set for the department.

This leads us into the third aspect of developing a good produce merchandiser: effective communication.

The complete produce merchandiser must have a command of all channels of communication, from buying and receiving, to direction and proper execution, and ultimately managing and setting expectations of performance and success. This quality cannot be overrated, and it is key to the overall success of the produce merchandiser.

As mentioned earlier, this communication includes the sharing of information relating to produce to everyone at all levels of the organization. Knowledge is power, and we rely on the merchandiser to get this information out in a timely manner.

Another key aspect of communication ability is to provide complete, easy-to-follow directions on how to execute the operations and plans within the department. Good, clear communication in this area is a must and can be the reason why a candidate fails, despite having all the other traits necessary. On this stage, a person with good communication skills is an extremely valuable addition to any operation.

A successful merchandiser must also have the ability to cooperate with produce personnel as well everyone in the entire store environment. The spirit of mutual respect and the readiness to help the entire store be successful is extremely valuable, as it enhances the merchandiser’s ability to get things done.

The development of good merchandisers is crucial to the success of any operation. While finding an individual possessing all these qualities may be difficult, there are various ways of developing good merchandisers, and the key is the recognition of talent that exists in your operation.

Many successful retailers have developed outstanding merchandisers by finding people in their operation that have some of the qualities in abundance and then mentoring them to become creative and effective merchandisers. The effort expended in finding and developing talented individuals into fully functional merchandisers is time well spent because of the key role they play in the success of the operation.

Who knows, maybe with your full support and mentorship, a good merchandiser can become a great one.

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. Comments can be directed to



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