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In the Trenches: Labor crunching causes difficult produce department conditions

Suppose you wanted to buy a new car. You visit four different well-managed and friendly automobile dealerships to browse various models. Then you enter a fifth dealership showroom and see dusty cars, coffee-stained counters, cluttered sales offices and broken floor tiles.

That disturbing showroom scenario would certainly send an uncomfortable message to a customer. Before purchasing one of their cars, you may instantly visualize mechanical problems, a sluggish engine, an unreliable service department and unpleasant sales reps.Unkempt-Peach-DisplayAn unkempt peach display is an example of what can happen when the labor force is thinned out in the produce department.

The same philosophy holds true of shoppers who see a shabby produce department. It will send a repulsive impression and alienate them from making any purchases. In addition, their word-of-mouth message will tell others of the unpleasant shopping experience they encountered.

Everyone who has worked in the retail produce operation, whether being a clerk, manager, director or otherwise, has at one time or another witnessed a shoddy department condition.

Unfortunately, these ugly developments turn off consumers and swiftly reduce sales volume. The situation could damage customer store loyalty forever, and that could easily reduce the bottom line profit of a company.How do these chaotic produce conditions happen? What are the causes that create them? Who is to blame? Where is management?

The busiest grocery store shopping hours are usually between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. when people stop at stores to pick up items on their way home  — and they do it in a hurry. They anxiously grab at produce items, move them around and disrupt displays. Many of the items become disturbed and mishandled.

Here are two of the main causes that create all the affliction:

Labor Crunches/Staffing Schedules: Let’s face the fact that we will always be in the hardship of labor cuts. Whenever labor squeezing occurs, the produce department is generally penalized the most. This is due to upper management allowing store managers to use their own discretion in budgeting the departments. Produce labor is weakened and creates distressed department conditions. Many situations find produce being handicapped with only a part-time person scheduled during the evening rush hours. In this case, it is impossible for that lone stressed-out employee to control the total shopping environment. This often places the department into a crisis condition.

Teaching/Training: Improving both full- and part-time employees in the fundamentals of maintaining superior conditions in the produce department seem to be ignored these days by senior management. Not recognizing the fact that untrained employees who are not taught the basic essentials and key points in properly caring for the produce conditions during rush hours is the same as not recognizing company profit. It takes time and emphasis to prepare fresh produce and restock product on displays. This includes straightening loose and packaged items in all sections, and it takes the proper training to accomplish all the chores. The understanding of basic priority maintenance will only be a reality with a planned training program and commitment. The sooner top management is convinced that this choice has to be part of the company program, the better the chances are of preventing those embarrassing conditions. The other choice management has is to do nothing — and continue losing customers and money.

It’s time for senior management to get out of the office and visit a few stores at 6 p.m. and tour the entire produce department; check the back room; go into the cooler; see all the out-of-stock displays; witness the lone part-time employee trying to keep up with the department demands; see conditions as they are in the trenches. Then judge the decisions on handing down mandates on thinning labor in which produce suffers the most.

Whenever you see a distressed produce department, management had the largest part in creating it. Strapping produce managers with far less labor is unfair to them and more importantly, to the customers.