The produce department, like any other department in a co-op, is there for the co-op's members. Serving them should be our major focus.
Starting with this concept makes it easy to determine the broad concepts that we need to guide our day-to-day choices in managing our department. The major areas we need to focus on are store appearance, member satisfaction, relations with suppliers, systemic efficiency, and staff support.
Store appearance is the most basic of concerns for running a produce department. Produce is perishable, comes in many different shapes, and is inherently beautiful. Displays need to be full, with variety that shifts with the seasons, and displays need to be arranged so that they take advantage of traffic flows. When a product is on display, it needs to have eye-catching signage and needs to be placed in a visible spot.
If there is dead space in the department, first try to develop it. If that will not work, which sometimes happens, you need to put storage crops there until they are purchased. Aisles should be kept clear and floors clean. This has a huge effect on members' perceptions of the store.
Keep displays full, but try to create an appearance of fullness with less product on display, in order to reduce shrinkage. Arrange merchandise according to associations. All the salad vegetables should be near one another; the Asian greens should be near the mung bean sprouts; the carrots and cabbage shouldn't be far from one another. Product that needs to be sprayed should be separated from product that needs to stay dry.
Always keep track of what sells best in your department and see what proportion of your display area can be filled with hot movers, while still keeping the slow moving necessities available. Make certain that your signage is uniform and attractive. If possible, get printed signage, because people buy more product from printed signage than from handwritten, and they buy more product from attractively written and presented signs than from badly written, hard to find signs.
Member satisfaction can be measured in sales, but numbers can often deceive. When answering questions, I always try to see what members are pleased with in our department, what they wish they could find here, and how they feel about our prices. Members really want to see their store do well, but they might not know that they can make special requests, ask questions and make complaints in order to help the store serve their needs better. At GreenStar we have a "2 cents" board in the store where members can leave notes. If we receive a comment on the board, I can immediately act on a member's concern. If one person speaks or writes a comment, I know that more people are thinking the same thing.
Skilled produce workers should also explore any possible market that our members might be interested in. After reading Paul Skirvin's article in the Jan.-Feb. 1995 issue of Cooperative Grocer, I became obsessed with expanding and improving our bedding plant/seedling display. As assistant manager at that point, I worked with the manager and our largest local nursery supplier to construct a space in our foyer that would be attractive and shield the plants from the intense sunlight and constant wind blowing off our parking lot. We also purchased a cart that is attractive and easy to wheel in and out of the store when we are opening or closing. Our sales tripled that year! This year we will be carrying packaged soil amendments and pots to continue exploring this market.
Satisfying members requires that we as employees of our members discover any needs which they have which we can fill and still remain profitable. There will be some products that do not sell at all and cannot be carried, but if something sells slowly yet draws people in, it is worth having. Learning how to alternate pricing to make up for loss leaders or products carried for variety or a specific group of customers is an essential skill.
It is worthwhile chatting with some long-time managers and even looking at some books on conventional retail management strategies. We should use any tools that help us to build a better department, so long as they are consistent with our co-op's objectives.
The topic of pricing leads directly into another important area for co-op produce managers: relations with suppliers. The job of a produce manager is particularly difficult because it requires a person who is comfortable with negotiating the fine line between supporting organic growers, supporting local farmers, and simultaneously bringing members wholesome, high quality food at the best price. It seems difficult until you sit down and outline your goals.
Our store has been wrestling with a general perception from the membership, as well as the community at large, of being expensive and exclusive. The impetus for us to get better prices from our suppliers has been powerful, so my assistant and I worked hard to find solutions.
The first step we took to change our high price image was to widen our selection of locally grown conventional produce. The prices on these fruits and vegetables was so attractive that we were able to outprice our chain store competitors, and those members who purchase conventional produce could feel comfortable knowing that their money was staying in our community. This also acts as a draw for non-members, who can come here to find produce they want at a good price.
The second step we took was to fill every niche we could with new organic growers, who were eager to get their foot in the door and who often had lower prices for the high quality produce we demand. The proudest moment during the local produce season for our department was when our conventional corn was the cheapest in town, and we had organic corn at the same price as conventionally grown corn elsewhere. We publicized our prices both in-store and through advertisements to stress the fact that our prices were not only good, but the best in our area.
The final step we are taking is to form semi-formal contracts with growers, where we assure them a market for their vegetables and fruits while negotiating the best price we can give them and still remain competitive. This can be a difficult process when you know the growers and what impact a drop in the price they are getting for their carrots might have on their lives. But you can insure their income by searching for ways to increase sales volume and/or find new venues for those growers to sell their product. Suggestions for growers can be as simple as storing their potatoes in a better space so they have less loss and can continue selling them deeper into the off-season, or offering ideas about new crops that are gaining popularity but no one locally has explored.
Our contracting system has been one example of how to increase efficiency in the department. When we first moved to our new, larger store, the produce manager had to haggle with each and every grower who had produce to see what was best that week, what was cheapest, who could supply adequate quantities, etc. But it was recognized early on that this made no sense, so contracts were initiated in the pre-season to make the crush of the local season more manageable.
Another system we adopted that was revolutionary in our department was to train substitutes to fill in if someone was sick, on vacation or had a sudden change in schedule. We drew our subs from the people we knew as the most reliable and skilled member labor. We have found our stress levels reduced immensely by this -- just knowing that there is skilled backup for us in case of need.
The last but by no means least significant part of the produce department is the staff who run it. I always choose to hire people who have a genuine interest and enthusiasm for produce and agriculture. I demand that all of my coworkers be focused, and in return give them space to grow. I disperse as much responsibility among the staff of my department as I can, because this gives people roots and a better sense, both for themselves as well as in delivering customer service, of how the department and the co-op as a whole are run. When someone has this base, it is much easier to see the co-op difference.
As a manager, I am ultimately accountable for the performance of the department, but the co-op difference, for me, is that we integrate the whole community into our business, from producer through distributor to consumer, recognizing each person's contribution to the successful running of the entire operation. Constant constructive criticism is essential for staff development. But be sure to offer positive reinforcement whenever possible, both with staff and suppliers. And do not forget yourself.