DAVENPORT, Iowa — At a Hy-Vee unit here, apples are a standout no matter what the season, and sales just keep climbing.
The store's produce manager, Greg Kimmel, said it's happening because Hy-Vee corporate allows him and his team to use their creativity to sell apples and other produce in whatever way they think will bring the best results.
“I've sold tons more apples, more product of all kinds, than I would if my company didn't give me so much autonomy,” Kimmel told SN last week.
The 224-unit chain, based in Des Moines, Iowa, does give store-level managers free rein to merchandise, demo and sell items — even those on special — the way they want to.
“I love that, that I have the freedom to go out there and show customers the passion we have for the job. We help them. We'll show them how good a Pink Lady is.”
Kimmel has a special passion for apples and maintains at least a 12-foot section of them year-round. “When the Washington apple season winds down, we'll get them from Chile, and then from New Zealand.”
When fall comes, local apples will be featured as well.
Kimmel's favorite apple is the Pink Lady. “They're good with caramel dip and in pies, and just to munch on. We [he and his team of associates] want everybody to know how good they are.”
The carefully chosen team is key to the department's sales success, Kimmel said. “Human resources does the hiring, but I sit in, and I have a say. I'm very careful about hiring the right people. I don't want stockers. If they just want to make a dollar, they can go somewhere else. I want people who want to make every one of our shoppers' experiences a good one.”
Last month, when Pink Lady apples were on special, Kimmel made an entryway to the produce aisle with two pallets of the apples in colorful tote bags on each side of the aisle. Big twists of colorful mylar added pizzazz.
“Whatever we put up front is what rocks,” Kimmel said.
He emphasized the value, too, of demos. That's something his department does every weekend with a regular demo setup, encouraging customers to taste new or featured items, and often showing customers how to use them. Hy-Vee employs its own demo staffs and a team of dietitians throughout the chain.
“Our demo gal might be cooking up diced peppers and onions and Portobello mushrooms and offering tastes of that, and boy, people buy those things that weren't on their shopping lists.”
Some of the demos are pretty spontaneous, Kimmel said. “One day we did orange smoothies, making some with fresh orange juice and some with a powder mix. Both sold very well. In fact, we sold 100 packets of orange smoothie mix that afternoon. Ordinarily, it'd take me probably a year to sell that many.”
Kimmel said his people are well trained in product knowledge and customer service, and they combine the two to good advantage. “They can tell you where a cantaloupe or a particular apple comes from, and just about anything else you might ask about it.”
And associates are quick to notice if a customer is trying to make a decision about a product, such as a new variety of apple or an exotic fruit. They'll ask if they'd like to try it. All associates in Kimmel's department carry paring knifes in their aprons. They'll take the item, wash it and cut off a piece for the customer to try.
Demos don't get any more spontaneous than that, and people remember it, Kimmel said.
A consultant who has worked with supermarkets for years pointed out that this is an economical way to do it, too, rather than contracting with an outside demo company.
“You've got to find a way to sample produce economically, and this is a good way. It's smart to use your own people,” said Dick Spezzano, principal, Spezzano Consulting Service, Monrovia, Calif.
“Ideally, after cutting a piece of the fruit for that customer, then you'd cut up the rest of it and offer it around to other customers,” Spezzano added. “People talk about that. They'll probably tell 10 other people before the day's over.”
Spezzano pointed out that with such a simple procedure, a retailer gets a lot more out of it than from passive sampling, which can be counterproductive because it's often not executed well.
Kimmel agreed wholeheartedly. “If it's not done right, then it's just handing out free food,” he said. “You need somebody there to talk to the customer.”
But who that person is can mean all the difference in the world, a researcher and marketing professor told SN.
“What Hy-Vee is doing is truly innovative,” said Kenneth Herbst, assistant professor of marketing at Wake Forest University's Babcock School of Management. “They're set to provide an experience [for the customer] in a second.”
“But you need the right person doing it. If there isn't interpersonal interaction, the whole idea is thrown on its head.”
Herbst explained that the right person should be personable and also knowledgeable. In fact, if they encourage questions and can answer them, the customer learns a lot more about the product than she would in an ad.
Not only does his autonomy allow Kimmel to decide what to demo and when, but he also can decide what to buy as well as how to sell it.
“I can bring a deal in. For instance, I can buy 100 cases of apples, place them and price them,” without going through corporate.
Kimmel has a particular fondness for apples, he said, and sees them as the backbone of his department.
“They taste good, they're shiny and pretty, and they're good for you. Kids like them. We sell a lot and make money on them.”
Kimmel makes good use of point-of-sale materials provided by his primary apple supplier, Stemilt Growers, Wenatchee, Wash.
Stemilt has a licensing agreement enabling it to use Sesame Street characters, and Kimmel uses whatever POS pieces he can that sport pictures of the Sesame Street gang. Kids, seeing Oscar or Ernie eating an apple, want one, too.
“Moms appreciate their kids asking for an apple instead of a bag of chips,” Kimmel said.
Stemilt's propriety variety, the Piñata! apple, was introduced at Hy-Vee with the help of the Sesame Street characters.
Kimmel, who's been with Hy-Vee since high school 23 years ago, said he loves his job in produce, because “things change seasonally, and there's always something new.”
He also gives credit to the autonomy he has for keeping the job interesting. Indeed, others must feel that way, too, because there's not a lot of turnover.
“I have two men on my team who've been here 20 years,” Kimmel pointed out.
Hy-Vee's communications director, Chris Friesleben, told SN the company was founded on the principle of autonomy, and she believes that probably helps make Hy-Vee's retention rate better than most.
“We don't mandate things. The store-level people were meant to make the decisions, because nobody knows their customers and their market better than they do,” Friesleben said.
She added that the company regularly holds regional meetings at which department managers discuss what has worked and what hasn't.