Three Big Lies

The produce industry is awash with plans to increase consumption. The Fresh Approach, “5 A Day” and many others preach the gospel of increased produce consumption. And for good reason. Every sophisticated company in this industry is looking hard at the demographic realities: population growth is projected to be very low for the U.S.

If produce can’t register an increase in per capita consumption, then the industry is doomed to fight among itself for a stagnant share of stomach. It is only by increasing the amount of produce that each person eats that our industry can grow.

But the truth is that retail produce at the chain level is stagnant today. After a period in the late seventies and early eighties, where produce boomed with imports, exotics and value-added items, where store produce departments dramatically increased in size, today produce is in a holding pattern. Departments have stopped growing. Many are retreating from the variety they once offered. Value-added services are being pulled out as unprofitable. Training is being reduced or eliminated.

A lot of this is hidden, because everyone talks a good game. But I think it is worth looking at the biggest lies told in retail produce:

Lie number 1: “I believe in Micromarketing.”

Micromarketing is the buzzword for the 90’s, and since most stores draw most of their business from a 3 mile radius or less, it makes perfect sense for each store to cater to the needs of the local community and individual store clientele. And that, of course, is all micromarketing really is.

The problem is that very few chains do any real micromarketing. Some, of course, have targeted whole divisions toward specific groups, such as Vons’ Tianguis stores, geared principally toward the Hispanic population. But the truth is that these groups are so large that they can justify their own division. So this is micromarketing at its most “macro” level.

True micromarketing is almost unheard of among big chains. That’s why some of the independents, such as Wakefern’s Shoprite stores have managed to do so well in this environment. The real culprit here is the corporate plan-o-gram, the document from on high that purports to tell hundreds of stores exactly how wide the display of scallions ought to be. This document doesn’t take into account what that local competitive situation is. The plan-o-gram doesn’t deal with the fact that one store’s customers are of Lithuanian descent, and the next store’s customers are of Estonian descent.

Of course the plan-o-gram probably shouldn’t be blamed. Most chains are forced to use these documents because their produce merchandisers are stretched beyond the limit, and the produce managers know little about produce or management. Most were chosen for no better reason than that they had a strong back.

Lie number 2: “Our produce merchandisers (or specialists) are out there implementing innovative and valuable merchandising ideas.”

Most merchandisers spend almost all their time putting out fires. Why? Simply because the produce managers are so bad that the merchandisers have to run the departments, doing everything from resets to setting produce department personnel hours. This situation is compounded because store managers, although technically responsible for produce in their stores, almost always come out of a grocery or front-end background and know nothing about produce. Everyone knows this, and so, if produce departments don’t perform, top management blames the VP of produce, not the store managers, even though technically it may just be the buyers and a handful of merchandisers that report to the VP of produce.

Lie number 3: “We believe in training.”

I get a lot of calls from a few old-timers who are produce managers and actually know something about produce. They all tell the same story: “My department used to have 250 man hours allocated to it, but now, even though sales aren’t down, I’ve been cut to 180 man hours. Now I’m supposed to train my produce clerks, but I have no time to train them because I have to be stacking apples since we cut the employee hours. And, of course, there is absolutely no allocation of employee time to be trained.”

Over and over again, I see people who have purchased the terrific PMA training program and it just sits on the shelf. Of course produce people aren’t the only ones to blame. In some cases they have gone to bat to get funding and time released for training, and it is top management, ignorant of the absolute necessity for produce training that vetoes the training time.

Even when supplier companies offer to pay the cost of presenting a workshop, many chains just won’t pull the people off work. Since everyone claims to be in favor of training, it must be training in another life that people have in mind.

The produce industry is going to have to go on one of two paths: Either the industry will gather up the resources and influence to press retailers to upgrade the quality of produce staff or the produce industry must reconcile itself to not having a real staff that knows produce and knows management. So suppliers will have to begin to prepare produce like P&G prepares soap – in packaging, with labels so that any fool can put it out and rely on the label and advertising to sell it.

Running the massive campaigns to increase produce consumption is noble work. But without a bare knuckles guerilla campaign to increase the capability of our produce retailers, these campaigns are likely to be frustrated in the achievement of their goals by a lackadaisical produce retailing system.