Picture by Shaun Fellows/Shine Pix for Aldi

When it comes to produce departments, knowledge is power

Don Harris

Our world is in a continuous state of change. Demographics are changing across the globe, as immigrants move to new locations and influence their new homes in many ways. One of the major changes is the influx of new and different cuisines being introduced in all areas of the world. To meet these changes in the needs of these different cultures, grocery retailers have expanded the variety they offer. While this has affected every department, it is most pronounced in the perimeter departments such as meat, cheese, seafood, deli and bakery. Nowhere is it more important than in fresh produce.

While upper management sees the need to add additional variety to meet the demands of these new consumer groups, they tend to rely on their prevalent grocery background and don’t always support the department’s needs for education and sharing of knowledge with employees. This tendency, once again, shows, “they just don’t get it!”

The past few years, there has been a tremendous increase in the number of new fruit and vegetable items displayed in the produce departments to meet the needs of a diverse consumer looking to try new types of cuisine. But many consumers are unfamiliar with these new items, and they desire information and advice on how to purchase and use these items. The successful and innovative retailer is one who will work hard at providing education and knowledge about this produce to the consumer, thus becoming their “produce expert.”

This effort will earn that retailer a favorable perception in the mind of the consumer as a business doing everything it can to be helpful and care about the needs of each customer. There are many examples across the nation of retailers executing this strategy successfully and enjoying great success. As with any new program, execution starts with education of all the employees in the produce department.

The responsibility for getting the information out on this wide variety of fruits and vegetables and production areas rests with the entire produce department, beginning with management. It starts with communication to the department, utilizing special bulletins and descriptive information included in every promotional publication.

Providing knowledge about each individual item’s variety, taste, uses, preparation, care and handling, and the various cuisines it can be utilized to prepare, is critical to let the consumer make an educated purchase. All information sources should be utilized, including obtaining knowledge from suppliers, industry promotional groups and food editors to be sure you provide as much information as possible to your employees.

Demonstrations on these new and unusual items, when seasons begin, help teach employees key aspects of this new product and all of the pertinent information on its use and tastes as well as its origins. This provides the associates in the department with the ammunition needed to talk intelligently to the consumer about these new items and assist them in selecting an item for purchase. All this activity also has another great benefit — it creates interaction of department personnel with the consumer, which also provides a favorable perception of the department and the store as a whole.

As with anything worthwhile, enacting a program that provides this knowledge and information to the employees originally, and the consumer ultimately, is not easy to accomplish. Over the years, emphasis on training has decreased, and upper management is reluctant to commit resources and add cost to accomplish this type of skill development. It will take commitment and constant communication with upper management to entice them to support this effort to better educate the department employees and provide superior service to the customer.

This cooperation and sharing of information will result in improved sales, more knowledgeable employees and more informed consumers. However, beyond the sales and profit benefit, this effort will result in an improved image in the mind of the consumer of the excellence of the produce department and its employees, as well as the overall perception of the store as a whole.

The cost of not taking advantage of this opportunity is not in just dollars and cents, but it is in the consequences of not moving forward with the education of the employees and consumers. If you do not adopt a strategy and move ahead, the competition will gain all the benefits that were available to you, too.

A market-savvy, innovative and successful retailer will not overlook this opportunity to invest in their employees and expand their knowledge and customer service. This is a step that must be taken to move your operation to the next level and gain recognition by the consumer as a superior produce operation.

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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