What makes a great produce department

What makes a great produce department

When I was a young store manager, the saying in the supermarket industry was that the success of your store depends on the quality of your meat department. Not to diminish the importance of the meat department, but in today’s world, your produce department is the driver of your store’s success.

That begs the following questions:

What does your produce department stand for in today’s competitive environment?

What is the consumer perception of your produce?

There is a reason that most retailers position the produce department at the front entrance of the store. It’s fresh, colorful and highlights the season. Produce sets the tone for the entire store. That being the case, what you show your customers when they step into produce is of the utmost importance. 

Here’s my list of the top 10 attributes of an excellent produce department.

1. Fresh sight lines

When a customer walks into your produce department, their eyes should be directed to fresh bulk product as much as possible This takes careful planning when setting your stores.

The fresh green rack is the produce manager’s pride and joy and needs to be a focal point. I love the wall-of-greens approach at the back of the department as it will be highly visible from the front of the department.

Your tables should be bulk on the front and bagged and clamshells on the back.

For example, bulk apples on the front of the table and bagged apples on the back. The same goes for potatoes. For tomatoes, bulk on the front of the table, clamshells on the back. You want to see as little plastic as possible – berries and grapes being the exception to the rule.

2. Culled, conditioned, rotated

Only the best quality produce should be available for your customer. The buyers take pride in buying the best quality produce available. Maintaining the produce available on the sales floor is important.

Best practices are to work the entire department the first thing in the morning before you stock.

  • Pull and pitch any distressed – bruised, wilted, damaged – product from shelf.
  • Pull and pitch outdated product from shelf.
  • Pull and re-crisp green rack.

During the day produce the produce team should be on constant lookout for poor quality.

Be obsessed with quality. A produce manager should never walk by an apple with a bruise. We must lead by example.

That goes for store management too. Don’t just walk by the produce department. Walk the entire department and inspect for quality.

3. Merchandised to the season

What season are we in? You should be able to tell what season we are in by standing in front of the produce department and observing the displays at the front of the department.

Is it spring with a focus on berries, Vidalia onions and asparagus?  Or is it summer with a focus on melons, grapes, soft fruit and local tomatoes? How about fall with a focus on apples? Or winter with the focus on fruit citrus?

4. Peak display power at peak times

While we always want the department to look full and fresh, that may not make sense on a Wednesday at 9 a.m. Always know your daily and hourly sales and plan on peaking displays when the traffic dictates.

It’s never okay to have poor quality on the rack, but it is okay to have one or two layers of great quality produce available during slow sales periods and then peak the displays on the evenings or weekends.

5. Merchandised to the neighborhood

Understand the demographic of the neighborhood where your store is located. This and your scan data should direct you to what variety you carry and the size of your displays.

6. Clearly signed

Signage is important, and we must be disciplined. The signs are for your customer and meant to inform. Great well-placed promotional signs provide information on price.

Your department is stocked with great quality fresh produce. But how much is it? Don’t make your customers guess. Whether it’s promotional pricing or everyday retails, each item should be clearly signed.

Informational signs are important, too. What is special about your produce and how does the customer prepare the produce? These signs will sell more produce.

7. Clean

Make sure you have a cleaning schedule that is followed diligently. Dirty shelves and displays are a major turnoff to your customer. Cleanliness reflects on your quality and food safety reputation.

8. In-stock condition

Out-of-stocks will disappoint your customers and will cost you sales. They could cost you a customer forever.

9. Backroom and cooler organization

It all starts and ends in your coolers and backrooms. Heavy coolers – those with too much inventory – are difficult to keep rotated. Stores with heavy, unorganized coolers and backrooms usually have more shrink and out-of-stocks than those that are organized. This means lost sales and less profit. 

10. Hospitable and knowledgeable clerks

The produce department is a service department. Friendly, informed clerks that assist your customers in their quest for great produce will enhance your sales and keep your customers coming back for more.

It’s important that the top ten of what makes your produce department great lives throughout your organization. Every team member must understand the top ten and what it takes to make it a reality in the world of the store.

Have the top ten printed on a 3x5 card and have all produce teammates and store managers keep it in their front pocket.


Mike O’Brien, president of O’Brien Innovations, has more than 30 years of retail leadership experience, including 15 years as a vice president of produce. He received the Produce Retailer of the Year award in 2004. His new consulting practice covers retail merchandising and business development, among other areas.


Check out Mike's previous columns for PMG at the following links:

Succession planning for produce managers — A great plan won’t hit your goals without execution at store level. I had a boss once who used to tell me, “Nothing is real until it happens in the store.” To have great execution you need great produce managers.

Winning the war on shrink — Runaway shrink is the nemesis of an otherwise well-run produce operation. It’s almost impossible to hit your targeted numbers if you don’t have a handle on shrink.