As young adults graduate from high school and college and begin looking for new careers, discussion in the Monday meetings turns to the need to recruit and encourage these graduates to consider careers in the grocery industry. Management maintains the stance there are always plenty of graduates available to work in the industry, thus no need for aggressive recruitment. The individuals responsible for each of the departments — especially produce — do not always share this view, as new employees are hard to come by and require additional training to be effective and provide customer service in order to drive sales. Most often, management believes training does not directly affect or improve overall sales directly, and therefore, it is one of the first line items to get cut from the budget. This shortsighted approach once again proves “they just don’t get it!”
Throughout the industry there is an appalling lack of on-the-job training and mentoring of new employees, especially in produce. This leads to personnel who simply go through the motions and avoid contact with customers to accomplish their tasks for which they have not been properly trained. Many of these new clerks last only a short period of time because they are not properly trained on how to do their jobs correctly, nor are they told what the value of their work means to the success of the department. Additionally, without proper training and mentoring by experienced personnel, the critical work of engaging with the customer. Many consumers lament on the lack of service and attention paid to them by clerks in the department — when they can find one. This lack of interaction is a major concern and could lead to consumers looking elsewhere — including the internet — for their produce needs.
“An effectively administered system of training and mentoring by experienced personnel provides an atmosphere for employees to grow and perfect their skills while assisting in, and contributing to, the success of the department.”
The solution to this issue is simple. Each retailer should have an active training program that provides the necessary skills and mentoring by experienced clerks to ensure new employees are armed with the proper education and knowledge of their position in order to perform at a high level. Management must realize the intrinsic value of such a program in terms of developing the type of employee in the produce department who will assist customers in making their purchases. One only needs to look at the operation of forward-thinking retailers across the country that invest in their employees and subsequently, are recognized for providing superior service, as well as attractive presentations, within their produce departments. These innovative retailers have recognized that the cost of an effective training program is a small investment when compared to the benefits of employing qualified clerks. It also is a small cost when compared to the cost of employee turnover, as well as the lack of continuity and experience lost when employees do leave the job. Even with minimal training, rapid turnover still exerts a high cost on the efficiency and profitability of the produce department. The introduction of new employees on a regular basis affects not only the operation and appearance of the department, but takes a major toll on the team’s morale. The result: a barely presentable and indifferent operated produce department.
We all recognize produce operations that provide a superior presentation and offer excellent customer service. Management often maintains they cannot afford the costs involved with providing this type of presentation. Management does not realize it cannot afford to allow the operation to have a second-class presentation compared to innovative produce retailers. An effectively administered system of training and mentoring by experienced personnel provides an atmosphere for employees to grow and perfect their skills while assisting in, and contributing to, the success of the department. The morale developed by this type of training provides an environment conducive to job satisfaction and employee retention.
As an industry, we must resist the urge to cut training programs at the first round of cost control and continue investing in the development of our employees. In the long run, the future and continued growth and success of the industry depend on the recruitment and retention of skilled, educated personnel running the produce department.
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 and is director of produce for the Chicago-based food charity organization, Feeding America. Comments can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.