Sticker Shock and Accurate Rings

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I was standing in a produce department the other day stickering what seemed like thousands of tomatoes with little green stickers. A customer walked up and said, “Why do you do that? I hate stickers on my produce, they are a pain to get off, and I hate the thought of eating them by accident when I don’t see or fully remove them!” As I was listening to this customer, I couldn’t help wonder the same thing. Why the heck are we spending all this time and labor doing something that the customers don’t like and that I feel is a complete waste of time?

In many co-ops across the country produce managers have echoed this statement. And you know what answer I hear? “We can’t get our produce through the register if we don’t.” This leads me to say, “You’ve got to be kidding me, right?” “No we’re not, try it yourself.”

So, in three different stores, I did bring to the register produce that was not stickered. My first experience shocked even me. The young man picked up the produce item I was buying and asked, “What is this?” You know what the item was? Broccoli!

The next two were better but not by much. My red chard was rung up as rainbow chard, innocent enough except that the rainbow chard was $.50 more expensive than the red.

Is this scenario something that rings true for you? Sometimes it seems that produce managers and front-end folks can have an almost adversarial relationship when it comes to getting accurate rings at the register. Have you ever said to yourself, “I know we’re selling more produce than that,” or “There is no way I could have sold 400 pounds of red delicious apples—I only bought 200 pounds this week.” Or how about, “We sold organic broccoli for 99 cents per pound all week long? That’s the conventional price!” How can this be happening?

With that said, I think we often forget just how hard cashiering can be these days, even if that’s where we started in the co-op. There are new POS systems to learn and hundreds of PLUs to remember in produce alone. Plus, front-end folks face the prospect of standing on their feet in the same six-foot area for as long as eight hours a day in many stores. Many customers are time-starved and have completely forgotten the meaning of patience. These “busy” people can get surly if cashiers don’t ring up their groceries at super speed.

We all know produce stockers who couldn’t pull that off, let alone with a smile. So how do you get what you want and help front-end personnel along the way?

Getting to know you

One surefire way to work together on the goal of accurate rings is to create a positive relationship between the produce and front-end staffs. Produce managers should take time to sit down and meet with the front-end manager or, even better, with the cashiers themselves. Explain what you’re trying to do in the produce department and why cashiers are so important to the final outcome.

Take time to listen to their side of the story, too. You may be surprised at what you hear. For example: “Fujis, enterprise, braeburns, and gala apples all look similar when there are several in a bag and you’re ringing up a huge order.” “The stickers on the organic bananas always fall off.” “It’s hard to tell which salad mix is which.”

Once both sides better understand each other’s position, you can work toward a solution.

Survey says

One of my clients from a smaller store and I started this internal process with a cashier survey. A survey can be very enlightening, especially if you start with basic questions. Here’s what we came up with:

  • What are the 10 hardest products to identify?
  • What are the top sellers?
  • What sells the least?
  • What is the most difficult part of your job?
  • Do you understand how the PLU numbers work?
  • Did you know that organic produce has a five-digit number that always begins with a nine, whereas conventional only has four digits?
  • How do you determine a price when lines are long and you’re not sure?
  • What specifically could the produce department do to make your job easier?

By asking questions and providing them with answers and solutions, you begin to bridge the gap. There is no better way to show cashiers that you really want to make this work for both of you.

A client of mine recently took the basic survey even further, and had tremendous results (see sidebar).

A taste of things to come

Once you’ve taken time to get to know cashiers’ issues, bring them into your world. I always say it’s easier to get people to open their ears when you put something good in their mouths. Introducing cashiers to the range of flavors in your department can open all their senses and put an end to confusion. Remember, some of these folks may not even eat produce. (That cashier who didn’t know broccoli couldn’t have ever eaten it.)

It’s your job to make an introduction, invite them to dance so to speak. Once they’ve sucked on a sliver of ripe mango, they’ll never forget what it is. I used to walk through the cashier area every time something new came into my department, giving a taste to everyone. I assure you, they won’t forget a new item after they’ve tasted it. And with cashiers often being the least paid position, it is a way to let them participate, by letting them try something that they may not have thought would be in their budget.

Believe me this small act can make a big difference. It can truly make their day. Give it a go, you’ll see.

This also provides you with an additional bonus. If front-end staff likes something, they’ll tell everyone who comes past their register. I’ve heard things at the register such as, “You’ve got to try the mangoes, they’re amazing,” or, “I never even knew what arugula tasted like, it’s pretty good!” You can’t beat that type of advertising.

Take a walk

Another way to get the attention of cashiers is a department stroll. Work out an agreement in which cashiers will walk the produce stand every day before their shifts start, to get an idea of any changes in the department. This way you can point out new items, nonadvertised sales, or product quirks that could cause confusion at the register. For example: “The tangelo has a nipple at the top, where most other tangerines don’t.” This walk allows cashiers to ask questions on things that you may not have thought about and prevents problems before they start.

The price is right

If problems persist, consider buying different sizes of like items, such as a 60-count organic avocado and 40-count conventional, so the cashier can recognize them by size. Or consider averaging the prices of commonly mis-rung items. Potatoes, apples, winter citrus and greens are just a few item categories that produce managers have averaged successfully. Remember, in a busy line at the register those pixies and Satsumas can look a lot alike, and making them all $1.89 instead of $1.79 and $1.99 can make it a lot easier for cashiers and more profitable for produce. This, along with a walk-through, can pay huge dividends for your monthly margin, as well as provide cashiers comfort and knowledge.

Take the test

I often ask cashiers if the produce price books located next to their registers are beneficial. Usually the answer is “yes.” Most cashiers memorize the most common numbers, but the book is like having a safety net on a climb. You may never need it, but it’s nice to know it’s there.

Once you have many of these things established, ask your store manager and front-end manager to try making it mandatory that cashiers first memorize the 50 top PLU’s, then 100, 150, and finally 200. Then regularly test them on their accuracy. Give them prizes if they pass the test each week.

Don’t think this is doable? Just walk into a Whole Foods and ask a cashier how many codes they are expected to know and how often they get tested. This practice is commonplace throughout the grocery industry. And they don’t mind it. Most people want accountability in their jobs and have higher job satisfaction when they do. Won’t your produce folks be happier if they aren’t applying all of those painful stickers?

Whatever you try, remember that everyone wins when we create strong relationships and work together for a common solution.

A time for change

That is a good lead in to my announcement that I am no longer going to be consulting. I will continue teaching the Rising Stars management seminars with Carolee Colter and Allen Seidner, which will give me the opportunity to still work with some of you. I also will keep writing my organic education cards and newsletter service that many of you subscribe to.

I am extremely grateful to have worked with and helped so many co-ops with their produce departments and stores over the past 11 years. I hope our work together has made your co-ops stronger and better able to serve your community. My life is richer for having had the opportunity to share my knowledge and passion—and to learn from you as well. I want to thank Dave for giving me a voice in CG. While I won’t be writing as regularly, I will occasionally share my thoughts on retailing, farming, etc.

I’m going to work for a small independent chain of stores in northern California and will continue to pursue my dream of creating an organic university that will provide hands-on training. I will always be a co-op supporter in my heart, and I wish that each of you will always strive to be the best you can be in bringing your gifts to the world every day. If you want to drop me a line, my personal email is [email protected].

See other articles from this issue: #133 November - December - 2007