Establishing Produce Quality: Jack Alexander Interview

Cooperative Grocer: Jack, you've worked with a number of co-ops, of various types. What are some of the common problems in produce?

Jack Alexander: It doesn't matter where you are, the same problems seem to plague the small retailer, which is where most co-ops fit in. One of the biggest problems to address, I'd say without exception, is the issue of quality. That's where lacking the supervision of a multi-unit chain really does hurt an individual co-op or even a small group of co-ops, because they don't have any one manager to monitor their quality. Consequently, they tend to be a little myopic and just say, "Well, we're doing the best we can."

CG: Yet there must be ways independent retailers, without the supervision provided in a multi-store chain, can maintain high quality standards and a well-managed department.

JA: Yes, and also there are resources, such as reading The Packer, attending conventions, or even going through the Produce Manager's Manual the Produce Marketing Association puts out and using it strictly as a guide; do these things and I'd say within a year you'd pretty well know everything there is as far as the basics. The rest of it would just have to come by comparing yourself and visiting enough stores to know what quality is. Certainly the resources for having a really beautiful, top-notch produce department are available to independents. As a matter of fact, of the stores that I show slides of as examples of the best produce merchandising anywhere, every one is an independent store.

I think one of the benefits of a small unit like a co-op is that it has the ability to work as a management team. In sharing the philosophy of cooperative buying or any kind of cooperative effort, I think this needs to be reinstated. The best thing a manager can do is pull out the old philosophy and maybe rewrite a few job descriptions and performance standards -- begin doing the things that made the co-op so successful in the past.

CG: What do you mean by "quality standards"?

JA: Produce is a living thing, so you want to make sure that it still has the glow of life in it. Quality is certainly the absence of any kind of decay or damage. If there is damaged fruit on the table, that is an indication that some of the other things are a little old and beyond their freshness peak.

Quality standards means doing everything to make sure that the product is, first of all, purchased at a high quality -- not buying old product. This is definitely one of the weak points of an independent. If a big chain goes to the same supplier and says, We don't want these pears because they're overripe, he'll give them the new ones and pass the old ones off to the independent. He knows that the independent as a rule doesn't gripe.

The first thing a store needs to do is establish -- and we do this in writing at my store -- exactly what "quality" is for each item. It should be an effort to define quality as buying the best produce that's available in the marketplace, whether it's from a local farmer, a supplier, or being airfreighted from outside the country or from the West or East Coast. Then, of course, the responsibility is to see that the product is presented well, handled and merchandised so that the quality is always in front of the customer.

Real gains can be made, I think, in rewriting the job description or looking at the performance standards in the produce stand. Make sure that the priorities are thoroughly understood by everybody who comes in contact with the produce department, which is almost everybody in the store -- from the receiving clerk all the way through to the checkout stand. Many times, because of the lack of trained people in the produce department, the standards are not clearly defined. I see this in almost every case where a store has problems. The produce manager, in the morning, sets up a beautiful rack, and then comes on the afternoon shift of part-time people. They have a completely different routine, and they let his rack go down to their standards, because they have throughout the day replaced all his work and put their own attitude in there. You start out with a Mona Lisa in the morning and end up with a cartoon at night.

This is one area where communication really needs to be strengthened, so everybody has the same understanding of quality control-set by the store manager with the produce manager. It's everybody's responsibility to cull the department. By cull I mean pull up anything that's not saleable or up to standards.

One of the tools we've all tried to use to move merchandise is to discount it. Really, produce is predictable -- you can know, at a certain stage, that probably by tomorrow or the next day it's going to be over the hill. And yet most of the markdown policies are marking down product that's already over the hill -- which under no stretch of the imagination is a bargain to the customer.

CG: So, know your food better and discount it earlier.

JA: Definitely. Discount it before it becomes either damaged or decayed, or it becomes an inferior product. Stores are reluctant to aggressively get the garbage off the stands and keep it off. I think it's done by having absolute quality standards, and here again, by defining it in writing. Write down that a red apple, if it has a dent or if the skin is broken, is inferior and should be taken off the #1 display, bagged up and marked down before decay sets in. Merchandise it in a different way than at the regular price.

The second neglected requirement is rotation. Everybody should know it -- here again the manager should establish a rotation policy. Like when you're putting down pears, the greenest ones go on the bottom, which means you have to pull the entire display, put the ripe ones on top, and remove any of those that have their skin broken or are in the least bit damaged. Most stores just pull the damaged and the ripe fruit to the front and put the beautiful ones in the back-and it presents a bad image. That's not proper rotation.

Here, in establishing produce quality, management has the opportunity to take leadership. I've seen them turn a store around on a dime. One week it's struggling along as a second class operation, the next week it's diamonds. It doesn't require an evolutionary process.

CG: You've mentioned good communications, culling standards and culling priorities, also rotation -- anything more?

JA: Receiving. Again, have a written document or have it well communicated that you're only going to receive product that comes in fresh and of top notch quality. The receiving job should take care to make sure that everything's inspected on arrival, and that things are rejected -- or if bananas come in overripe, that they go directly to the stand at a reduced price, before they become a problem and in turn they get some compensation from the supplier. Insist that what you pay for is the quality you intend to get.

Make sure, as trainees come in or other people from other departments work in produce, that they are taught the various steps to be taken to avoid product becoming damaged or decayed or overripe. In other words, they learn to anticipate the behavior or the product -- because it's all predictable. Like strawberries: Basically, if you get in four or five boxes of strawberries, they should all go on the stand immediately, if you have a refrigerated stand for them. Because they're only going to be at a worse stage the next day. Yet I find people saying, "I'm going to put out half of them; I'll put out the rest of them tomorrow or the next day." But it's predictable that on the third day, when you work them, one-third of them will have to be pitched. So it's knowing the limitations of the producehere again there's lots of information available -- and then acting on that information.

The other thing, I can't repeat often enough, is to establish a standard, one that cannot be misunderstood. In other words, "If you can squeeze an apple and the skin wrinkles, it's over the hill." Or, if you can see a break in the skin, it's over the hill and should be culled.

I own my store and will own another as soon as the new store is completed. I think the hardest thing -- when I buy something with my money, it's very painful -- is to throw it away. And yet I know that's necessary.

CG: There's another argument in favor of more culling: that higher standards and higher customer expectations for your produce will lead to bigger sales and thus higher turnover, which in itself results in less spoilage and reject food.

JA: That's exactly right. But I find culling problems even in high volume stores.

When we write job descriptions and task performance standards, the first thing in every shift should be to cull the rack. By the same token, the last thing they should do before leaving is to cull the rack. It's only about a 20 minute job, maybe a half hour in the largest departments. Yet many times people will walk right by it.

I think this is a good time to rewrite your standards, because now a store is offered, continually, certain items that weren't even around last year. You need to define what the standard is and how to handle things like basil or tarragon or watercress or parsley or herbs that used to be sold only in the spice section as a dry item and now are available almost all year long.

If everyone would take a real serious look and write some standards of quality for every produce item and every part of the department, it would be a serious step toward being the best in the marketplace.

Of al the things I'm continually running across, the simplest thing to turn around is quality. It doesn't matter if it's a brand new department or if the produce manager has been there ten years. It still seems to plague the independent operator.

See other articles from this issue: #009 February - March - 1987