A Disturbing Trend: Epidemic of Indifference

Don Harris - Retail Perspective

Originally printed in the August 2022 issue of Produce Business.

I’ve observed a disturbing trend in retail produce operations. It’s not a completely new phenomenon, as it began to manifest itself before the pandemic, however, the pandemic had a profound effect on this trend, enabling it to strengthen and spread.

In reviewing and visiting many retail operations over the past few months, something is definitely lacking in most produce departments we observed across the country. It was difficult to pin down exactly what was going on, but finally, after much observation, it became obvious there was a permeable feeling of indifference throughout the produce department.

This indifference manifested itself in the overall performance of the personnel in the department, the presentation to the customer, and the execution of basic merchandising concepts.

In all the concern for the pandemic and the challenges of a shortage of labor and inflation, this challenge has been largely overlooked. Upper management — with its focus on task-oriented operations, pickup and delivery planning, usual sales and profit goals and projections — has basically ignored this concern and continues its present course. Because of this lack of attention from upper management, it only goes to show, once again, “they just don’t get it!”

While all the functions of the produce department were being performed, they were being executed by rote. With the task-motivated environment prevalent in retail, it seems the concept of accountability for performance has been replaced by an apathetic approach to simply getting the work done.

On most occasions, we observed produce employees working on the sales floor, restocking the displays as quickly as possible, with little regard for proper display techniques, and the total avoidance of any interaction with the consumer. In some cases, the employee was observed leaving the sales floor to avoid any contact.

What’s suffering? The overall performance of the personnel in the department, the presentation to the customer, and the execution of basic merchandising concepts.

Employees also failed to recognize which parts of the department needed attention and continued their assigned task instead of directing their efforts to an area that needed immediate attention (in almost all these occasions, the area of need was a key sales/seasonal item).

What is causing this apathetic response by the employees? Is it the residual effect of the COVID-19 pandemic? Is it a reaction to the strict, task-oriented direction? Is it a lack of awareness and concern by produce management? Is it a lack of training of produce skills? Is it a generational thing? Could it be a lack of positive leadership in the department? Most likely, the answer is a combination of all these factors that is robbing the psyche of the produce department of the ability to perform at a successful level.

This “epidemic of indifference” has permeated produce operations across the country and the rest of the world. This lack of pride in doing a good job is an emerging threat that could destroy many years of progress in the presentation of fresh produce to the consumer. To avoid this consequence, every retailer must address all the questions outlined above (and any others you may identify) and determine what would be the best course to pursue to reverse this trend.

The solution will be different for each operation, but must be based upon identifying the causes and developing solutions to restore the pride and satisfaction in the presentation and operation of the department.

Tackling this indifference will undoubtedly present a significant challenge for each operation. However, if unchecked, this challenge will continue to grow in strength and will be more formidable each day it is allowed to continue exerting its influence on the operation.

Combating this state of apathy requires immediate action. There is no time left to sit back and hope it will just resolve itself. We must realize this trend will not go away without positive action. The resurrection and emphasis on the concepts of “pride in performance” and “pride in accomplishment” are vital to reversing this trend. To accomplish this goal will require complete focus and dedication to solving the root causes of this indifference and providing the solutions and leadership to guide the operation to an effective, appealing and abundant presentation of fresh produce to the consumer.

By recognizing this increasing threat to the retail produce industry, we can act now to blunt the effects of this threat and put our operations on the road to recovery and the continued growth and success of our efforts.

We are standing at the crossroads. We can continue to operate as we are presently and allow mediocrity of presentation and operation to become the norm, or we can take the initiative and prepare a strategy of action and leadership to reverse this trend. We must propel our operations forward to regain the pride we have in our presentation and to improve our individual enterprises.

Don Harris is a 41-year veteran of the produce industry, with most of that time spent in retail. He worked in every aspect of the industry, from “field-to-fork” in both the conventional and organic arenas. Harris is presently consulting. Comments can be directed to editor@producebusiness.com.