CUSTOMER SERVICE BECOMING A NECESSITY IN PRODUCE

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Staying in touch with customers as they shop the bulk displays and salad coolers has emerged as a key factor in keeping produce sales climbing, according to department managers who work at store level.To develop good relations with customers, it's become crucial to have knowledgeable staffers in the department as many hours a day as possible, the produce managers agreed. They also

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Staying in touch with customers as they shop the bulk displays and salad coolers has emerged as a key factor in keeping produce sales climbing, according to department managers who work at store level.

To develop good relations with customers, it's become crucial to have knowledgeable staffers in the department as many hours a day as possible, the produce managers agreed. They also emphasized that communication between managers and staff is an important prerequisite. That often means staggering their own work hours. Michael Midura, Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass., said he works 42 hours a week, with evening hours part of his schedule at least three of those days.

"I always make sure I have a full-timer close the department," he said.

Yet just as important as being there himself is the communication factor, Midura said.

He gathers his staff together every day for a quick, right-on-the-floor huddle, just as restaurant operators get their kitchen and wait staff together at the beginning of each shift to let them know what the day's special is, and anything else that needs attention.

"It can be anytime during the day, just 10 minutes. Then, anytime we have corporate meetings, I come right back and have meetings with my employees. And any bulletins that come down have to be read by everybody. They initial them so I know they've read them. That way, everybody knows what's going on," Midura said.

Ken Straub of Bashas', Chandler, Ariz., said he doesn't schedule himself off two days in a row, but spaces his days off so he's back in the store before a small problem could become a big problem.

"The next day when I come in, we can go over what happened the day before. If there's any particular problems, we can handle them together then," he said.

However, Bob Mrowinski of Price Chopper/Ball's Foods, Kansas City, Kan., said he tries always to be in the store at the busiest times, such as Sundays. At Mrowinski's store, everybody in produce has the option of working on Sunday, either a full day or a half day. It helps that Price Chopper offers a pay incentive for Sunday shifts. He strives to have the department covered all hours the store is open, and most days, he himself works till 6 p.m., "so I'm working with my morning and evening teammates."

Straub leaves his department uncovered after 9 p.m., but he doesn't deem it essential that someone be there that late in the evening.

"My last person leaves at 9, but the store closes at 11. There's maybe 5% of our business during that time."

James Purccetti, Mollie Stone's Markets, Mill Valley, Calif., is a big believer in to-do lists to keep things going when he's not there.

"All my second managers have a fresh to-do list every day. It can include price changes, various functions. They like to come to work because they know exactly what they're going to be doing. Everybody knows they have a special job to do," he said.

When it comes to getting customers into the department, Straub suggested staffers be educated in the use of color.

"Mine is a training store, and I'm always surprised that [associates] don't know anything about color. I take them across the store to the bakery to show them what our department looks like from there. The back row is our wet rack. So if you display bananas in front of that, it looks great. The bright yellow against the dark green background makes the bananas stand out, almost giving it a 3-D effect. It definitely brings people in," Straub said.

Midura banks on demos and signage to interest customers.

"We have a great demo program. Once a week, we demo for four hours in the produce department. And we have a good relationship, for instance, with Melissa's [who supplies lots of point-of-purchase materials]. We had some Buddha's hands from them, and they gave us laminated signs that tell what they are and what they're used for. They were $10.99, but we sold a lot of them," Midura said.

He also gave signage credit for selling lots and lots of Honey Crisp apples, a new variety that warranted an easy-to-read description.

The managers made their observations during the Produce Marketing Association's Fresh Summit 2003 event. Harold Lloyd, president of H. Lloyd & Associates, Virginia Beach, Va., was moderator.