Reach Out And Touch Someone

Because of my line of work, food shopping is not a chore. I enjoy seeing how different produce retailers can offer similar wares, and I try to intuit shoppers’ decision-making as they shop one display but bypass another. I also watch retailers’ staff at work.

Back home, we shop a few stores in our area. We frequent the same stores because of their location and the service we receive, in addition, of course, to their variety and high-quality offerings. Those stores are rewarded with my family’s repeat business.

After focusing on topics involving current events such as food safety over the past few months, Produce Marketing Association’s (PMA) latest consumer survey returned to a topic near and dear to me because it can make such a difference to sales: customer service in the produce department. In late March, Opinion Dynamics Corporation surveyed 1,000 primary shoppers for us by telephone on this subject.

Shoppers generally have a favorable opinion of the service they receive from their local supermarket produce department, although there is plenty of room for improvement. Sixty-four percent positively rate the service they receive; 34 percent give the highest possible rating. While some readers may be satisfied with those numbers, I see much opportunity to better satisfy customers. And that means increased produce sales.

For customers to be wowed, they must first be “touched” — by-product offerings or by service or, preferably, by both. When asked what characteristics best define a good produce department experience, shoppers point to the people as well as the produce. The most highly rated product were freshness, variety and selection, department cleanliness, staff courteousness and low prices, respectively.

When asked to tell us what they look for from produce department staff, our respondents ranked staff’s knowledge of freshness, produce in general, quality and availability as most important. Shoppers who give their produce department service a neutral (21 percent) or negative (8 percent) rating similarly echoed the same sentiments. They reported they want improved service, better selection/ variety, fresher produce, lower prices and better quality — but apparently, they aren’t getting it, unlike their fellow respondents who gave us a positive rating.

Perhaps one reason produce retailers don’t earn stellar marks for service is because most shoppers don’t interact very much, if at all, with produce staff. Almost half of the shoppers surveyed reported they have no contact at all with their produce department staff. Meanwhile, only 17 percent reported some degree of contact and less than 10 percent report they have a lot of interaction.

Isn’t it strange that the produce department, the place where stores have the highest level of “high touch” in product offerings, often does so little to reach out and touch its customers? Why do we allow so many of our employees to work with a focus on the shelves, avoiding eye contact with customers, intent mostly on stocking, not on selling? Why do we settle for mediocre performance in selling products whose sales can be driven so much through proactive customer service?

Touching customers has both intangible and tangible value. Our research shows that it not only helps promote customers’ loyalty and goodwill, but it also has a very real impact at the cash register. Almost half of the shoppers who have some interaction with staff report they are “somewhat” to “much more” likely to buy more fruits and vegetables based on that interaction. If our retailers can engage a fraction of those shoppers who said they had no contact with produce department staff at all, they will foster customer relationships that can also be measured in dollars and cents.

Our survey looked at one particular touch-point opportunity: taste testing. While consumers typically report that taste is the most important reason they buy fruits and vegetables, many of our shoppers (64 percent) report their stores don’t offer taste-testing. The shoppers also told us tastings encourage them to increase their purchases. Among those who do have access to tasting, 55 percent report they are somewhat to much more likely to buy more fresh fruits and vegetables when tasting is offered.

Just as importantly, even those who don’t have access to taste-testing said they would be more likely to increase their purchases if tasting were offered. In addition to reducing the risk consumers may feel about buying a produce item new to them, taste-testing gives produce department staff an opportunity to connect with their customers about any and all things produce. Anyone who eavesdrops on tasting conversations, as I do, knows how often shoppers seize that opportunity to approach staff with other produce questions. A bond is built, a relationship created, a value added. Suddenly we’re no longer just in the commodity business.

An investment in customer service training and produce education can pay for itself in short order through higher per-trip sales and return business. Savvy retailers know this well, and best-of-class stores are living proof that customer interaction and taste-testing are activities with a very definite return on investment. I encourage retailers who want to equip their produce staff to deliver a higher level of customer service to contact PMA’s education department for assistance. We are now developing some new associate training tools designed to meet this specific need; stay tuned for more information in the future.