The purpose of pursuing produce perfection

by Armand Lobato, Jan 25, 2023

My favorite science fiction author, Ray Bradbury, once said, “Too late, I found you can't wait to become perfect, you got to go out and fall down and get up with everybody else.”

Perfection is a tough reach. Yet, in the produce aisle, it’s a constant goal, isn’t it? Whenever we were charged with putting together a new store or remodeled one for a grand opening, or even in the numerous, overnight merchandising resets we did, perfection was indeed our goal. Long before, we were carefully placing produce on displays (as one chain likes to tout, that their produce is “lovingly stocked”) on those new/remodel/overnight sets in such a manner. 

See some near-perfect merchandising displays here in PMG's Fall 2022 Produce Artist Award Series Winner Webinar

Some actions just come naturally with many merchandisers cut from that same cloth; keeping symmetry in mind, we carefully selected color breaks, cleaned and rotated each section, ensuring the base of each display was set just right so that the end stocking result ending up being neat and level.

And if that wasn’t enough, we took pains to ensure the best blush or desirable feature of each piece of fresh produce faced outward for the customer eye. Yeah.

A row display in a store produce department. Boxes stacked in front include pineapples, with stacked boxes displaying oranges and bananas. Back rows include bananas and more fruit that is slightly unclear to the viewer.

Most of my merchandising counterparts were much more meticulous than myself, as my idea of perfection was often outweighed by the need to get the job done and move on to other tasks. However, those counterparts took exceptional pride in what I called the “itty-bitty” touches, such as turning mushroom caps up or trimming off a quarter-inch of an apple so that it fit on a display exactly right. “You know why,” they’d explain. “For the grand opening shine, for the camera beauty shots, for the bosses, the chain ‘suits’ who do the final walk-through.” 

Or especially for the first wave of customers. That’s the real final walk-through.

Produce Market Guide Editor Amy Sowder, myself and fellow columnist Joe Watson convene on a regular basis, judging and in general sharing our amazement and appreciation for the produce managers and specialists who enter Farm Journal’s seasonal display contests. We recently met again. Most all the entries are at — or near — merchandising perfection to the point that is very difficult to choose among all the excellent display entries. Nice to see pride and attention to detail is alive and well.

Watch: The PMG winner webinar of the last contest

After the Zoom meeting, I shopped at a nearby store for my dinner. I was reminded of the reality of what an average big chain looks like going into the evening rush. With just one produce clerk working trying to keep up with dozens of shoppers, I could relate how just keeping up stocking standards is the challenge, much less remotely hoping for perfection. The department was in overall good condition, with few out-of-stocks.

Related: Read more insight from Armand Lobato

Still, perfection remains the standard. Why? Because when a produce department is dialed-in — clean, fresh, full, level, and competitively priced, with trained, friendly and knowledgeable staff — it shows. 

Most of all, a perfect (or near-perfect) produce department slows down the customer and drives the most sales that anyone can hope for, given the effect on hungry, impulse-prone shoppers. Maximum sales keeps the lights on and pays all the bills, including payroll. Top-notch stock conditions turn inventory, keeping things fresh. And it builds a good gross-profit with minimal shrink and ultimately helps build new stores. Job security.

Under ideal, well-planned and -executed conditions, a produce department can be near perfect. But it rarely stays that way for long, which is by design. Therein lies the challenge. As Mr. Bradbury said, “… go out and fall down and get up with everybody else.”

Armand Lobato works for the Idaho Potato Commission. His 40 years of experience in the produce business span a range of foodservice and retail positions.

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