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What captures your attention when first stepping into a supermarket? At most stores, it is the first display you observe at the entranceway of the produce department.
But it never used to be that way.

In earlier supermarket years, produce departments were located in the rear of the store or at the end of traffic flows, and produce displays often lacked variety, thought and creativity.

But around the mid-1970s, supermarket management took a different approach and chose to relocate produce to the front-entrance areas of stores to act as a focal point and convey an aura of freshness to shoppers.

This was a move that had — and continues to have — a profound and positive effect on the entire produce industry. From that point on, fresh fruit and vegetable sales began to increase each year, and still continue to grow.

When produce departments were treated as low priorities many years ago, produce managers also received very little recognition. They were sort of a lost breed working in the shadows of the store. And if the department were situated at the very end of the traffic flow, customers would be all shopped out by the time they reached produce. An anxious rush to get through the checkout counter and out of the store at that point meant very little shopping time spent for produce. This hasty exit usually left the produce manager unnoticed by customers in the process.

But when produce sales began to increase steadily with the move to the front of the store, this sudden surge forced companies to expand the size of produce departments in order to accommodate larger displays along with the increased varieties.

This significant forward movement also elevated the importance of the produce manager, who became entrusted with the full responsibility of operating the new age of modern departments.

As years passed, produce departments had their share of growing pains. Additional new items began to enter the market, requiring produce managers to have more product knowledge. This did not come along very easy, as very few sophisticated marketing programs were made available at the time for all the various so-called "specialty" items that entered the produce scene. Produce managers were trying to learn about these unusual items as fast they were being presented.

The skills and know-how of merchandising produce are quite sophisticated these days and require well-trained individuals to perform the task. On-the- job experience also adds huge value in becoming a bona fide produce manager. This first must be comprehended at the clerk level for one to be considered a serious candidate for the position.

Once qualified and chosen for the role, the produce manager accepts a results-oriented responsibility of achieving sales and gross profit for the store. Other basic functions of a produce manager include display setup, merchandising, labor control, inventory management and training.

But let's face some realistic facts. Today’s cost-cutting mentality has caused good, talented produce managers to be released. This has forced a number of supermarket workers to handle produce manager duties with little or no training at all.

Then the typical infamous question is presented at upper-management meetings: “What happened to the produce sales and gross profit?”

This is no way to operate a company. Good produce managers do not grow on trees. They must be groomed through training and experience, not just tossed aimlessly into a department with expectations for instant results.

When it comes to selling produce, superior merchandising standards are the key components of success. Merchandising strategies using ingenuity to develop an eye-appealing presentation throughout the produce department are essential for driving volume. Of course, the freshness of all the products on display is the main ingredient in building customer confidence.

It is quite obvious that upper management such as produce directors and supervisory staff are the decision-makers and are responsible for goal- setting and controlling operations. However, it is the produce manager who has to make things happen at the store level.

Supermarkets apply visual merchandising throughout the stores using displays as predominant focal points to attract customers. No other department has a better opportunity to capitalize on this merchandising method than produce. The attractive presentation of various item colors spread throughout the department is an art in itself. The appearance of massive and aggressive displays is meant to draw customers and persuade maximum purchases. All this is performed by the talented produce manager.

If you are a grower, shipper, wholesaler or distributor, your product eventually has to pass through the hands of every store produce manager. Keep in mind that it is not a president, vice president, produce director, buyer or supervisor who orders product and operates the produce department. It is the produce manager.

We should all keep in mind that produce managers play a vital role in dealing directly with consumers on the sales floor of the store. They are the key conduits through which substantial amounts of produce move through the department. Today, the value of a knowledgeable and skilled produce manager is priceless.

(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.)