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Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door." What? Change the mousetrap? Change is good, but will a better trap catch more mice? Maybe it will and maybe it won't.

In fact, the U.S. patent office receives approximately 400 applications for a better mousetrap each year and the inventors are turned away one after the other, which begs the question: Does change always deliver a positive result? I have long been a devout advocate of change and have tried hard to practice it throughout my career. But not all changes result in success. As with many new ideas, there are also a great number of failures.

An example of an ill-advised change took place earlier in my career when we once decided to sell strawberries on bulk displays by weight. After two weeks, the change to bulk berries was deemed a complete disaster. The only things that changed were berry sales (which went down), increased shrink due to customer handling, higher labor costs from maintaining the display, and the color of the produce department floors, which turned from grey to bright red. Thank goodness clamshell strawberry containers were introduced to the industry shortly afterwards.

Everything around us is invariably changing. The environment dictates it, and consumers insist on it. Innovation and modification are essential today if companies want to stay ahead of the game. There's a saying, "If we don't change, we're history." That may be true in many ways, but is it absolutely necessary to change something just for the sake of change?

If a specific ad layout with clowns on every page is drawing a record number of customers to your store, should you eliminate the clowns? If a huge produce display fixture at the front of the store steadily generates massive sales and profit, should you relocate it to the rear of the store? If a dynamic produce crew keeps building sales growth by double-digits every week in a specific store, should you change the team?

Making changes to each of these three examples may be taking a serious risk on the business growth. Therefore, the decision to completely change something may not always be good for business.

All companies should be open-minded in making changes as the markets adjust to consumer trends. Competition often plays a big role in forcing management into making sudden shifts in directions with little time allowed to communicate with its employees. Making such hasty alterations can send companies in a direction that is unpredictable. Furthermore, it can trigger confusion throughout the entire operation.

Adhering to a program and developing ways to improve it are sometimes safer than just discarding the entire work for the purpose of changing it altogether. Derrell Kelso, president and owner of Onions Etc. Inc. in Stockton, CA, put it this way: "Sometimes change can be defined by employees as a negative. The person initiating the change must develop a culture of improvement. Is improvement good change? It most definitely is as long as it is presented in a positive manner. Everyone wants to improve, but no one wants to change."

Making swift changes without first examining each situation carefully could foolishly waste both time and money. For example, a slight squeak in the area of your automobile wheel may indicate that you may need to have your brakes replaced. Do you run right to a garage and instruct the mechanic to install all new brakes, or do you ask to have the brakes examined first? It makes more sense to examine the problem thoroughly before simply making the change and spending money without due consideration.

Mike Aiton, director of marketing for Prime Time International in Cochella, CA, stated, "Change is needed to correct problems. The examination of the way we do things helps check our methods first and make sure we are doing the right things."

Programs, banner names, product items, labels, packaging, equipment and even management structures are subject to change. It's all about a compelling desire to revise the system in order to succeed in the business environment today. If a company needs onlt a spruce-up and decides to make a major change instead, the end result may be unproductive.

There are many companies that do not consistently stick to a program. If it doesn't progress at lightning speed, they abandon it and start a new scheme right away. Instead of patiently working with it by making various improvements, they confuse customers and employees.

Constantly switching gears by starting new programs one after the other wastes a lot of valuable time and money. Why discard a program and all the investment instead of making it better with slight modifications? Disrupting the momentum only gives your competition time to pull ahead while you try to launch a new program.

Yes, change is good for business. But make sure to understand that change has possible consequences. Minor adjustments usually keep a company moving along, but a complete change could lose a lot of customers during the long adaptation period.

(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.)