Tesco CEO discusses current supermarket environment, support for others
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Retail perspective: Managing Customer Perceptions in the ‘New Normal’

Don Harris

Originally printed in the April 2021 issue of Produce Business.

As we move closer to the end of the pandemic and what will be, the “new normal” for the world and our produce industry, certain aspects of what will become normal operations must be examined to make sure they do not cause any undue degradation of our operations reputation. It is always wise to examine any new operational activities or concepts to determine their affect upon the overall projection of the image of our company in the eyes of the consumer.

Given upper management’s preoccupation with “getting back to normal operations,” it is left for us, the individual department operators, to look at these new activities and focus on their relationship to the department’s image as well as that of the entire store. Management may be slow to recognize the need for this type of focus, but in the rapidly evolving nature of our new marketplace, it is something that cannot be ignored.

During recent conversations with consumers at my local supermarket, one aspect of the “new normal” that is becoming more important to not only overall stores sales and profits but that of the individual departments is the increase in consumers utilizing online ordering of groceries for pickup/delivery. Of particular interest are consumer comments about perishables, especially fresh produce. These comments are focused upon the quality of the products received from these orders:

“The bananas are too green/too ripe.”
“My avocados are rock hard.”
“My packaged salads are all brown.”
“The fruit I received I wouldn’t have picked myself”
“The quality of the produce I received isn’t as good as it once was.”

It is obvious that these types of comments begin to work on eroding a quality fresh produce reputation. Unless there has been a conscious decision to revise quality standards for the operation, these types of comments must be taken seriously, and solutions created, to prevent this type of damage to consumer perception.

A first step to reverse these types of comments is to look at normal operations on the sales floor to be certain that no shortcuts, such as lack of rotation, are occurring that might affect quality of the product on display. Once this is been reviewed, the next step would be to examine the selection process for these online orders for pickup/delivery. When this activity began to gain traction, we recommended that the selectors should be trained by the produce managers on how to choose produce that reflects the store’s image for quality and value.

It would behoove the successful produce retailer to approach management and encourage training sessions for online order selectors on how to provide the customers with the best possible quality for their produce orders.

While there has been some adoption of this principle in the industry, too many times we have observed these orders being filled in a manner to promote speed and completion of task instead of care and attention to the quality of produce being selected. Given the increase in the amount of these orders, it is a natural reaction of management to stress the efficiency and speed of selection to ensure the prompt selection and availability/delivery to the consumer.

It would behoove the successful produce retailer to approach management and encourage such an approach and offer training sessions for these online order selectors on how to provide the customers with the best possible quality for their produce orders. This training would include everyone in the produce department sharing their expertise and would stress to the selectors the opportunity to approach anyone in the department to ask questions about selecting an item. While this would require commitment of time from everyone in the produce department, it would be a small cost compared to the potential damage done to the quality image of the department and the store.

This type of action and execution represents an opportunity in the “new normal” to help differentiate your operation in the marketplace. It would only reinforce your company’s commitment to quality and value in all operations especially those important perishable departments that are critical to establishing a superior consumer reputation. With everyone looking forward to the end of the pandemic and return to a semblance of normalcy, this type of proactive action to reinforce customer perception is another building block in the “new normal” to raise your operation to a new level of success.

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 editor@producebusiness.com.



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