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Since the early 18th century, the manner in which goods were arranged was found to be very important to attract people and entice them into making purchases. This visual merchandising principle is not new, as it is still practiced even today throughout the retail industry all over the world - especially in supermarkets.

Success in the supermarket business today requires superior skills, smart planning and hard work. The art of retail selling demands an understanding and knowledge of the subject. There is no better way to learn retail produce merchandising than on-the-job experience, which involves actually handling, displaying and selling produce.

Supermarket retailers have a great number of ways to increase sales, and most operators turn to clever merchandising methods to accomplish it. But, there is more to merchandising than just placing items on a display. First of all, it is necessary to develop a special ambiance to attract shoppers and entice them to buy your product. The displays should draw attention and make customers see items they may not have noticed while in the store.

There are a number of factors that influence customers into wanting to shop at a specific supermarket. In fact, 90 percent of consumers judge the freshness, quality, variety and cleanliness of the produce department as major reasons when determining where they want to do their regular shopping. The most important factor in the success of a produce department is the impression it gives shoppers. Good, skilled merchandising is the most significant element.

Have you ever wondered why customers walk by a produce display without buying anything or even giving it a second glance? Often times, people get turned off because a display is poorly designed, cumbersome, messy or empty. The message these displays send is that product must be inferior and the produce department must be substandard.

Many supermarket retailers seem to struggle with ways to get shoppers to buy more than just a couple of items in the produce departments of their stores. They try different approaches but just can't seem to capture the volume sales to meet budgeted expectations. Without a compelling reason, customers will not spend much time in the department, which of course means missed sales opportunities. Hence, it's not how much produce is sold but rather how much wasn't sold.

Selling produce is a special art. It is also an expression and a philosophy. There are a number of ways to sell produce, with various types of displays applied throughout the department. Many of these displays are large and filled with an abundance of various fruits and vegetables.

One popular selling method is known as a waterfall display, which consists of product flowing off a table or case and into the original shipping boxes. This merchandising style is designed to create eye appeal and attract customers to the display, thereby encouraging them to buy generous amounts.

Visual impact is a major part of merchandising, and produce has an ideal advantage in this area. Customers are highly influenced by the many colors of different items neatly presented throughout the department. Color catches the customers' eyes and influences their shopping habits.

That is why it is necessary to use color contrast when displaying specific items so that they blend into one another like a beautiful bouquet of flowers. The department then becomes a colorful piece of art, with the goal of increasing customer attention.

The expression and appearance of produce displays can have a major impact on sales. Here are six very simple guidelines when displaying produce:

Family groupings -- Keep category items together to make it easier for customers, for example all apples, all tomatoes or all peppers. Scattering product of the same category in several different locations will confuse customers who may even miss making specific purchases.

Tie-in displays -- Set up a secondary display elsewhere to create impulse sales, for example, grape tomatoes in front of salad mixes, lemons alongside asparagus or broccoli, or red boiling potatoes with green beans.

Accessibility -- Displays should never be overloaded, which could possibly cause an accident. Customers should be able to reach product easily from all angles. Never build over-extended waterfall displays.

Neatness -- Produce should be neatly stacked on displays. Every waterfall or wing display should be orderly and squared off professionally.

Keep it clean -- Displays should always be clean and free of debris. Only clean boxes should be used for waterfall and auxiliary displays.

Stock it -- Keep it full. An appearance of abundance makes the produce more appealing. It only takes a split second for customers to walk away from an empty display. Remember, you can't sell from an empty wagon. Keep displays full. When customers were asked in a survey why they didn't buy items they intended to buy, 45 percent said the display was out of stock.

Fresh ideas are always good for keeping regular visual changes in the produce department. There is nothing worse than having customers get bored from seeing the same display on every shopping trip. Make sure to re- merchandise major display locations, especially at the entrance to the produce department. It will introduce new interest to customers and bring them back to the store often.

(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.)