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Fresh Insights: Focusing on professional development for retailers and leaders

Early in my career with fresh produce retailing, I entered a management training program with a dynamic world-class 70-unit Northeastern grocery chain. My three-inch training binder held nearly 20 1.5-hour training class modules to complete in addition to my daily in-store role as a produce team leader.

The rigorous reading list added eight to 10 books on varied management and leadership topics such as, Whale Done, Fish!, and Good to Great, all read on personal time.

Regular coaching and one-on-one mentoring sessions were required as well as regular written reports.

Here was the catch: The training program was self-directed. No superiors planned to nag me or schedule sessions for me, and they rarely carved out time for me.

I controlled my “destiny,” holding the key requirements for career progression. My motivation (or lack thereof) to learn would also demonstrate my candidacy for promotion.

Produce professionals today are in a similar place. With constantly changing regulations, food-safety requirements, packaging, merchandising, marketing and retailing innovations, as well as the need to follow trends, ideas and best practices, learning can be challenging without a systematic approach.

The amount of data, news and advertisements at our fingertips is staggering. I often glaze over from the pressure of a pile of magazines I’ve wanted to read on the edge of my desk. It’s daunting to consider the number of webinars, trade publications, trade shows, memos, lunches with industry veterans, reading books and corporate training programs one might hope to engage in.

Don’t let these common hurdles limit you or provide an excuse to change or learn. Here are some ideas for a systematic approach to grow professionally and strategically in any organization without being overwhelmed.

Choose the most helpful learning topics

As a produce retailing and merchandising consultant, I chose category vs. consumer-centric category management. Write these down and focus. For a month, review trade publications’ tables of contents and only read articles aimed at this topic rather than being overwhelmed by a 90-page novel. While all articles might be helpful, they may not be meaningful today. Be realistic.

Lunch it

I regularly invite people I’d like to meet to lunch. In about one hour you can learn a lot about someone and his or her expertise all for about 20 bucks, while building a long-term relationship.

Connect experts with content

When I discover a contact is an expert on a specific subject matter, I often add this keyword into my online contact memo field. Later, I can quickly search this word in my contact file or LinkedIn database to recall a real live resource in my network.

Notes and files

Topical digital or hard-copy files can be helpful. Keep a sheet of paper in the front for quick notes and include print-outs, sell sheets or brochures behind it.


Social bookmarking sites such as enable you to access researched web site bookmarks on varied topics anywhere you’re online while improving your ability to find later with searchable keywords.

Time management

Set aside an hour a week, 10 minutes a day or a specific day of the week to read industry updates. A scheduled or length of time is more important.

Produce e-newsletters

Sift through an inundated inbox more efficiently with the use of inbox filters. Select keywords you are looking for and only allow email newsletters with these phrases into the inbox, while redirecting others to minor priority folders.

Google Alerts

Similarly, Google Alerts is time-saving and helpful to stay current with innovations or industry news. By adding a “produce merchandising” Google Alert, I am sent new content links containing this phrase when new content is posted.

Get out of town

Business or even personal trips present great opportunities to review other retailers. Spend time with family on vacation, but if you need to grab a pack of hot dogs and ice cream, volunteer for the trip to the local grocer. As retailers, we cannot stay the same. Progress requires learning, knowledge and innovation. Successful people do the things unsuccessful people don’t want to do. It’s not easy, but the best companies follow suit.

For retailers, consider a more corporate approach. Divide up subject areas, and learn and have leaders give a report on the topic at an upcoming merchandising or team meeting. In any case, with a little focused strategy, we can all home in on key learning opportunities.