Enhancing The Front Line: Raising The Bar For Produce Managers

For most supermarkets, a key differentiator from Wal-Mart, warehouse clubs and the deep discounters such as Aldi, Save-a-Lot and Dollar Stores is service, and part of that is having knowledgeable and personable staff at store level in the produce department. Indeed, many supermarket chains include a line about providing “informed and pleasant” staff in their mission statements.

There is a general recognition that produce managers and their clerks are our front-line troops and the industry as a whole benefit from having better people and better-trained people on the front line. After all, these are the salespeople for the industry, and if they are warm and excited and knowledgeable, there is little question that sales will increase.

Unfortunately, there are many challenges to upgrading the front line staff. For example, labor hours are generally being cut, not increased. This means that the remaining staff is busy stocking or doing in-store cutting or other tasks. They just don’t have the time to devote to interacting with the customers.

It is also a common complaint by produce directors that the young clerks who are hired today are often not comfortable interacting with people face-to-face. It is unclear why this is so, but many theorize that the younger generation, brought up texting and using Facebook and Twitter, is just not as accustomed to face-to-face interaction as previous generations, who had no choice but to interact face-to-face.

Being a knowledgeable adviser to consumers has also become more difficult. If you walked into a particular Harris Teeter store on a recent day, you would have seen a sign explaining that on that particular day the store had 849 separate produce items. How many produce clerks could even name all those items, much less know how they should be cared for, where they came from, how to cook or utilize them and their flavor profiles?

Plus the information needed today is vast compared to what was expected in years past. The whole “know your farmer” concept requires an extraordinary increase in knowledge about each product carried, and the rise of the “functional food” movement — with people expecting specific foods to help them in specific ways — also has expanded the range of knowledge required if a produce clerk is to be genuinely helpful.

Yet few stores have any kind of methodical training to offer associates in the skills and knowledge needed to be optimal produce ambassadors.

The old PMA Produce Training program, which Chiquita funded a couple of decades ago, is still being used in some stores, and truth be told, there is not much better that is out there. That is both a credit to the original program and an indictment of industry action in this space today.

Computer-aided training, where individuals can go through various modules on a self-paced format, is clearly the way to go, but retailers are hesitant to invest in either the technology or the staff time, especially because turnover is so high. Plus a lot of the “know your farmer” information changes with each shipment, so constant updating is essential.

It seems likely that all this will be hard to actually execute on the clerk level, so vendors need to look to technological solutions such as QR codes on every item, etc. so that people are able to access the information for themselves. This may be the ultimate solution, but retailers should realize that it devalues service and reduces the likelihood that their efforts to differentiate themselves through service will be successful. After all, if consumers get the information electronically, they can do that at Aldi as well as at Harris Teeter.

Still, it seems important to have at least a top-notch produce manager to control all the things necessary to make a department top-notch. This job, though, is changing as well. One hears talk about department managers as the new “compliance managers,” as they are now spending good portions of their time making sure the department is in compliance with country-of-origin labeling, nutrition labeling, organic segregation requirements, food-safety requirements and much else. The old model, in which the produce clerk with the strongest back gets to be a manager, is clearly not going to work in the future.

Of course, in many cases, stores are having problems getting people to accept the job. All across the country, retailers report that assistant produce managers refuse to accept the job of manager when an opening exists. One hears assessments such as “Those guys work too hard,” or “I don’t want the extra hours,” or “I am a lot less likely to be fired if I stay where I am.” In truth, the bigger issue is salary compression, with many chains offering as little as a dollar an hour more to take on much greater responsibility.

Instead of assuming that assistant managers will become managers, retailers should hire from the clerks a class of Produce Manager Trainees, which would involve a two-year program in which these people would both receive formal training and education and be rotated around as assistant produce managers in a variety of stores. They might also get some time working in receiving and procurement locations and with the merchandising team. After two years, those who didn’t wash out would be in line to get the next available manager slots and be given jobs in the meantime as assistant produce managers or other slots in the company.

Then each store would have a cadre of motivated and educated people ready to step in as produce managers who would be front-line generals worthy of the industry and the opportunity at hand.