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You see a sign in the produce department on a display reading, "Homegrown Sweet Corn." What immediately enters your mind?

The corn must taste great, having just been picked from a nearby farm. The word "homegrown" influences your brain, which selects, organizes and deciphers the information from the sign and develops a meaning. That particular meaning results in a certain psychological feeling. It's all part of perception.

When you enter a place of business such as a retail store, an office, a warehouse or a farm, what does your brain focus on immediately? It's usually something that stands out on in its own. It sends a message to your brain, which results in you forming an impression of a person or company, which could be positive or negative.

For example, if a store clerk is chewing gum and blowing bubbles while waiting on you, it may affect how you perceive that store. What's your impression of a company whose salesman calls on you at your office with cigarette burn holes in his wrinkled sports coat and an arm full of papers sloppily dropping on the floor while balancing his ragged briefcase in another?

Suppose you are given a tour through a distribution center and you spot dirty storage areas, damaged cartons of scattered product on the floor, broken equipment and pallets stacked precariously. Would you feel confident in doing business with that supplier?

Everything we do or say sends what I call a "perceptive peripheral message" to others. Something conspicuous usually pops out at individuals within an all-encompassing view of the surroundings. That something can lead a person to form a lasting impression, be it good or bad.

Likewise, how do people see your own company? What impression do you send to the produce industry? One thing is for sure, you must capture customer perception in a positive way. Otherwise, your company reputation could be at stake, and your business could suffer.

A produce department with one-layer displays of tired product conveys a message that the store is not serious about quality. Customers likely will be left with a negative impression about the entire store.

More and more companies today send a "going out of business" message to their customers. A slow economy or overpowering competition can trigger company cutbacks, which are all part of doing business. But the method used in cutting back can result in a negative customer perception about a company.

Suppose a new supermarket just opened down the street from yours. It promotes low prices, stocks product aggressively, offers free gifts, has impeccable service and hosts events that draw away most of your customers. Then your feeble promotional campaign designed to try to reclaim some of your customers fails. What do you think happens next?

We've all seen it take place within the store interior. It starts with cutting back on product stocking levels, highlighted by one-layer displays in produce, fewer salads in the deli, smaller packages in the meat case, fewer fresh loaves of bread in the bakery and the slimming down of merchandise in other departments.

Following the product cutting, the next sign of withered business is the curtailment of specific sections of the store like shifting from a full-service floral, deli or seafood department to a self-serve operation. Next in line is a total elimination of an entire department.

In the produce department, a very common product reduction habit is to cease mass-merchandising of fresh-item displays in order to control shrink. Generally, a store will eliminate stocking fresh produce on a back table or two and filling in the space with bagged peanuts, dried fruit, candy, bird seed and items that have a longer shelf life. This is primarily to occupy the space. The next step is to remove the display fixtures altogether. Once again, this affects customer peripheral perception. If it looks like you're going out of business, then you most probably will go out of business.

To sum it up, it is of the utmost importance that you examine your company very carefully to make sure you are sending the proper message to your customers. Whether it involves product, packaging, labels, logos, advertising, signs, merchandising, sales rep attire or other phases of the business, recognize the messages you are sending to people.

When customers enter your business establishment, remember the general overall "peripheral perception message" you convey to them. Consider that what they see is what they will get. By all means, look at your business perceptions very seriously. Your customers will.

(Ron Pelger is the owner of RONPROCON, a consulting firm for the produce industry, and a member of the FreshXperts consortium of produce professionals. He can be reached by phone at 775/853-7056, by e-mail at ron@power-produce.com or check his web site at www.power-produce.com.)