Get to the Finish Line

Don Harris - Retail Perspective

Originally printed in the October 2022 issue of Produce Business.

As the year’s end approaches, progressive and innovative retailers take a hard look at their strategy for the last weeks of the year. Given all that we have experienced over the past two years, the end-of-the-year period presents new challenges to all operations, not the least of which is the evolving post-pandemic consumer. To meet these challenges, we must adopt a new outlook on the end of the year and its strategic priorities beyond the simple “food holidays” focus of years past.

Management, unfortunately, still seems to be using the same old strategies that concentrate on the traditional approaches to the fourth quarter. With this outdated focus on doing the same as last year, management once again shows that, in the terms of marketing for fresh produce, “they just don’t get it!”

As we move toward the end of the year, the competition for the consumer’s dollar will only intensify. We can no longer allow our focus to be on “food holidays” as we always have and leave our operations on historic cruise control through the last 12 weeks. Success during this period will require an aggressive action plan with concrete steps to put together a cohesive, effective strategy. We will need to employ out-of-the-box, strategic thinking to prepare the execution of our unique holiday plan.

Start by reviewing previous years’ activities and determine which were successful and incorporate them within the framework of this action plan. Reject plans that were ineffective.

In the competitive retail produce world, innovation wins, so end the year strong!

Secondly, look at all alternatives of supply. Search local supplies and import availability to aggressively and creatively secure supplies of important, key produce commodities. We must seek out and identify new sources of supply that will add positive offerings to the consumer throughout the department. We must be conscious, however, that we do not overstock the department and create a disorganized, cluttered presentation. The value of this analysis is vital to success of this effort, as it will identify the options and promotions that will form the backbone of a promotional strategy.

The next step is to look at what’s happened over the past few months in terms of the evolving customer and their new wants and needs. There is no doubt that the consumer’s attitude towards produce is changing, and spending habits have responded accordingly.

Inflation, out of stocks, and uninspired presentations have disappointed many customers in recent trips to the produce department, and must be reversed if success is to be attained and the potential for growing sales and profits to be realized.

The traditional challenge from other departments in the store and their key holiday items will still be prevalent, but the successful retailer will be the one that can incorporate traditional aspects as well as new and unique items and methods of merchandising to show the consumer the best value for their food dollars. We must show the value of fresh produce as we compete for the consumer’s dollar versus all the other options during this period, not only in food, but holiday gifts. Recognizing the changing marketplace is key to putting together an effective and profitable strategy.

The final step is combining of all this information into a cohesive strategy for merchandising the department that reflects the changing wants and needs of the consumer, as well as the wide variety of fresh produce available. Over the years, the presentation during this time has become a bit shop-worn and old-fashioned, leading to a less-than-attractive department presentation. In this new world, innovation wins!

The best retailers will be those that break the mold and present to the consumer a department that offers compelling choices for the tastes and preference of every individual consumer. This effort will not be easy to accomplish and will require substantial planning and design, so the execution will be possible given the challenging labor conditions we face every day.

As we move forward, our operation will be breaking new ground as it meets the challenges of the “new normal” in our ever-changing marketplace. This is yet another case where upper management may not see the value and necessity of this analysis and strategic planning initiative, but it will become increasingly evident this action is necessary to maintain and gain market share.

The best retailers will finish the year strong and position themselves for growth in the new year. They will also accomplish one other major role — they will separate their operations from the rest of the crowd.

Don Harris
Don Harris

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