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Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “I’m not the smartest fellow in the world, but I can sure pick good colleagues. Because I’m not so smart, I have to surround myself with real talent.”

Throughout my produce retailing career, I was very fortunate to have been associated with some excellent colleagues. Those individuals were from all facets of the industry: growers, shippers, truckers, warehouse operators and fellow company employees. I, too, surrounded myself with real talent. I always considered my associates to be partners in business.

One very important segment of our team was the produce field merchandising staff. They were responsible for all produce operations within each of their store districts, and their input was very important to our overall success with produce. With their valued suggestions and ideas, our produce operation realized substantial growth. It proved that a strong partnership can facilitate the achievment of common objectives.

Ron-Rich
Ron Pelger in 1975 while director of produce at A&P, with Rich Underwood, a produce buyer and merchandiser for A&P’s Columbus, OH, division.

I always felt strongly about working with commodity boards. Over the years, many of these fine groups played an important role as we welcomed them to be a team partner of ours. After all, we both shared the same common desire: to increase product movement.

No company or organization can do everything alone. It takes teaming up with others to grow and expand business more rapidly and efficiently. As a retailer, I always looked to work with commodity boards and participated in their many merchandising programs such as display tie-ins, consumer coupons, special ad promotions and even some exciting contests.

One organization in particular with which I built a great relationship is the Idaho Potato Commission. Not only has the IPC created an exquisite image of the russet potato, but it also opened a corridor throughout the produce industry by connecting growers and retailers.

The IPC has been promoting Idaho potatoes since 1937 and today is one of the most respected organizations in the produce industry. During its many years in operation, the IPC has brought much to the table, especially for retailers.

When the “Grown in Idaho” seal was created in 1959, it assured consumers that the potatoes they were purchasing were specifically grown in the state of Idaho. Providing a superior-quality potato to consumers has always been of the utmost importance to Idaho growers.

 

A look back

Members of the industry occasionally reminisce about some of their past experiences related to the produce trade. You often can hear nostalgic stories being told at trade events, especially when long-established friends gather around a luncheon table or in a cocktail lounge. Taking a trip down memory lane is often full of amusing anecdotes that we all enjoy sharing now and then.

I can remember a period of time when there was a common confusion between an ordinary russet potato and an Idaho russet potato. There was a fuzzy understanding of the two identifications among consumers and store personnel. It even confused me during my early years in retailing as a part-time produce clerk. Whenever a customer asked for Idaho potatoes, I just pointed to the russets on display without a thought to where they were grown. Nobody ever took the time to explain the difference to me.

It wasn’t until I entered into management positions that I became more knowledgeable about different varieties and places of origin. Moving out from the Midwest to other parts of the country also introduced me to new marketing areas and consumer shopping habits. It was then that I realized customer preferences were a bit different, especially for particular potato demands.

No matter where my mission took me, I still heard consumers ask our produce clerks about Idaho potatoes. The confusion continued to follow me even outside the Midwest. I was having flashbacks of past customer interactions, hearing them ask, “Where are the Idaho potatoes?”

Finally, while working on a weekly ad program, I decided to add one magic word that actually cleared up some of the confusion at the store level. It was recommended to me by an IPC representative whom I respected very much. We included the word “genuine” in the item description and emphasized it in Idaho potato ads as well as on display signage. It worked like a charm.

One of our most valuable achievements over the years was to team up with the Idaho Potato Commission and its Potato Lover’s Month promotional contest held every February. The inaugural contest was held in 1991, and this event set off a flurry of excitement among produce managers and their staffs. It not only sparked motivation, it actually had every produce department competing against each other to create a winning display. The best part was that our Idaho potato sales increased by 23 percent over a comparable selling period.

After completion of the contest, we sent an album to the IPC that included documented sales results and photos of the winning displays.

The IPC field reps worked with us in ongoing promotions throughout the year, not just in February. Each activity rendered the same positive sales and tonnage results. It also helped build the true recognition of a “genuine” Idaho potato with retail personnel and consumers.

We were successful due to a strong partnership with the Idaho Potato Commission and because we surrounded ourselves with talented people in our produce departments.

 

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.