Has Produce Lost Its Pulse?

Wholesale Market Paul Manfre

Originally printed in the January 2020 issue of Produce Business.

What is the driver to your retail produce sales? Despite many staple produce items being on customers’ shopping lists, impulse sales are by far the greatest contributor to sales.

Now, this can be achieved in a variety of ways. It can be brought on by pricing, displays, smell, taste and education to name a few. There is no doubt a bargain will increase sales, and it is the main reason we see retail ads every week in the newspapers.

Unfortunately, from my perspective, real bargains at retail are far and few between, and are often just less-than-inflated retail prices. Great displays have always produced impulse sales. We read all the time about retail contest participants building massive beautiful displays to push a particular item. The produce managers win the prize, which also usually includes a 100% to 500% increase in sales for that item. Then, when the contest is finished, the stores go back to their 3-box RPC displays and lethargic sales.

Next, we move on to smell, taste and education to hike impulse sales, which can be generated by knowledgeable and informed retail produce professionals in the departments. “Sir, smell this melon…. doesn’t it smell delicious?” “Ma’am, taste these grapes, sweeter than candy.” “Have you ever tried this item? It has great nutritional value.”

When I started in this business, I sold fruits and vegetables on street corners of Manhattan, and we had a stand that took up two parking spaces in a parking garage. In the summer, there were two staple items — seedless grapes and cherries. We sold about 8 to 10 other items, which consisted of whatever tasted great or was a bargain.

If retailers spent 10% of what they spend on technology updating their displays, merchandising, purchasing, pricing, educating and training, their ROI would be far greater.

Our whole business was based on an impulse sale. We didn’t have every item, and we often didn’t have the same items two days in a row. But, we did sell two 18-foot trucks full of produce out every day. No ads, no twitter, no metrics… just some old fashioned produce selling.

Walmart, Target and all the rest are investing heavily in technology to move the retail revolution forward. Many, but not all large retailers, have less-than-ideal displays (to be kind), and they don’t use smell, taste and education in their retail stores to drive impulse sales. They, and others, use RPC box-in, box-out displays to save on labor costs and make their displays dummy proof, but they look like the dummies. They depend on price and traffic to sell produce; the sales tactics seem like almost an afterthought.

To gain consumer confidence to buy produce online, I strongly emphasize that the consumers must have confidence in your in-store experience first. They go hand in hand. Which leads us to what I see as the same problem as putting all your eggs in the technology basket: When buying online, consumers only have price as an incentive for the impulse sale. There is no display, no ‘eye appeal is buy appeal,’ no smell, no taste nor any produce professional to help sell more produce.

I have said many times, technology in retail is an important factor, but it is not the most important factor. When it comes to produce, there is no doubt in my mind that if retailers spent 10% of what they spend on technology updating their displays, merchandising, purchasing, pricing, educating and training, their ROI would be far greater.

Why are they trying to reinvent the wheel, when all that is necessary is to change the tire?

Paul Manfre is general manager at Top Katz Brokerage LLC, located in The Bronx, NY. In his role, Manfre oversees purchasing, sales and contract negotiations. He is also a produce supply and demand specialist.