33rd Annual Mystery Shopper Report: Industry Experts Eye Store Infractions and Attractions

Originally printed in the March 2020 issue of Produce Business.

Five produce pros go shopping in stores that could be yours.

For 32 consecutive years, Produce Business has conducted an annual Mystery Shopper Report. Over the years, specific methodologies have changed, and experiments have been tried, but the essential component remains: Send a team of people out into the stores to experience our products as consumers do.

This year’s Mystery Shopper Report has a twist. We asked five industry professionals — people on the supply side — to be our mystery shoppers. These volunteers were eager to find out what happened to produce once it left the suppliers and entered the retail market. During the month of February, we examined three geographically diverse markets — East Coast, West Coast and Southern US – with some “shoppers” visiting stores outside of their home regions.

Why is this Mystery Shopper Report important? One of our shoppers, John Pandol, director of special projects at Pandol Brothers Co., Delano, CA, says it as well as anyone: “There is no substitute to seeing your product as the consumer sees it at the moment of truth. It’s less important what a grape looks like when it is on the vine, or in the box, or when the bird dog looks at it, or when the truck arrives at a distribution depot. What ultimately counts is does the product have that special something to drive it through the cash register?”

Indeed. It is astonishing how many companies spend countless millions to make sure product is in perfect condition when it leaves their facilities but not a single nickel to evaluate its condition when sold to the consumer. Only consumer satisfaction with the product can result in increased and, thus, repeat sales. [Side note: this month’s edition also includes our Annual Masters of Merchandising Supplement, which has 19 sponsoring companies that invest in educating retailers about best merchandising practices of their products.]

That retailers need to know how their customers experience the produce department goes without saying. After all, how else can they improve their operations?

The rest of the produce industry cannot be indifferent to the matter. Overall sales of produce, in general, cannot be increased unless specific venues sell more produce and the quality of the consumer experience is satisfactory — whether that experience is measured by product quality or the quality of the physical facilities, personnel or an array of information and services surrounding the produce.

Years of Mystery Shopper experience have taught us that many decent venues for the sale of produce become horror stories when the regular, full-time help goes home. This is a big problem and one growing bigger as labor becomes more constrained. This not only means that the produce department has a lot of out-of-stocks as things run down, but it also virtually guarantees an unpleasant experience for consumers.

NOTE: All stores visited were graded in eight areas on a scale ranging from A for excellent to F for failing.


West Coast Regional EDLP Store
Time/Day Visited: 6 p.m., Tuesday, February 11
Description of store: Regional supermarket rooted in the West. With every-day-low-pricing and value format, this large 80,000 square foot store appeals to stock-up shoppers as the traditional base, mainly composed of larger household and home cooks.

Cleanliness of Produce: A
Overall Merchandising: B
Consumer Information (POS, nutrition, country of origin, recipes, etc.): C+ (Not much beyond legally mandated, but a plus for large, well placed signs with item/price.)
Breadth of Selection: B
Pricing: A
Availability of Produce Personnel: A
Knowledge of Produce Personnel: B
Unique Produce Department Features: B
(Most items are in shipper-placed cartons and are directly placed into chilled wet racks or dry fixtures.)

High Point of Produce Department: The most perishable items — mushrooms, bean sprouts, fresh cilantro and parsley or low volume specialty vegetables, such as parsnips and bulk carrots — are in a separate chilled rack at the back of the department, near the backroom door.

I visit this store frequently, and I have never seen old cilantro or a bad mushroom, for example. I’m sure, they cull it on a different schedule.

Low Point of Produce Department: Bananas are really green – the dark green, not the light green. (I asked the clerk about this, and he told me they have too much waste. As a result, they suggest putting bananas in a bag once in the home, so that they will be ready in a day or two.)

This may be a policy for rural Rocky Mountain stock-up shoppers who perhaps benefit from the shelf life, and maybe even in Bakersfield, CA, where the $300/cart, stock-up shoppers might appreciate it, but I think bananas in the store should have some yellow.

Observations: A.B.C. … Always Be Culling… One person was culling the avocados; took the box from the display, empty box down, and checked each avocado. The other was doing the same with the four cartons of green bell peppers on the chilled wall.

There are roughly about 280 linear feet of dry produce and maybe 150 feet of refrigerated space. There is only a modest and appropriate amount of organic and bagged salad displayed and very little fresh-cut.

I speculate because almost all the management was a store associate in their past, they understand that high priced, high margin items can easily become high shrink, profit-killing items.


National Chain in Southern California
Time/Day Visited: 11 a.m., Sunday, February 16
Description of store: National chain, independent and publicly traded. Focus on farm-fresh produce and other healthy, affordable items. Very few national brands. Each store is community-oriented.

Cleanliness of Produce: B
Overall Merchandising: A
Consumer Information (POS, nutrition, country of origin, recipes, etc.): C
Breadth of selection: B
Pricing: A
Availability of Produce Personnel: A
Knowledge of Produce Personnel: A
Unique Produce Department Features: B

High Point of Produce Department: The produce department was well organized, and the produce looked appealing in its natural state. A true “farmers market” feel – rustic displays with produce often presented unaltered, untrimmed and even with dirt still on some items.

Low Point of Produce Department: Some of the produce appeared to be toward the end of its shelf life, yet was still mixed among fresher items. Clearly, there is a reduced likelihood of selling that product, resulting in more waste. This could be how low prices are maintained, but the items could have moved to a separate area on “sale.”

Observations: Overall, it was a good experience. The aisles are wide, and it made for easy shopping. The store seems to live well within its mantra of being a farmers market, which is especially communicated in its produce department.

A sampling was offered to my 9 year-old daughter. She was asked to try a new apple variety that the store had just started to merchandise. The sample did lead to a sale — as she liked the apple very much, and she appreciated the offering.

The footprint of the produce department appeared to be about 35% of total store floor — clearly its point of differentiation. Organic sections were clearly marked, as were the names of different product varieties. However, there were not a great amount of unusual or exotic varieties. I think this was a missed opportunity for more education via signage to communicate more information on the products at hand — origins, usages, preps and recipes. For a store that places as much weight on produce, offering point-of-sale tips could have a greater impact on sales.


National Specialty Chain in Northern California
Time/Day Visited: 1 p.m., Saturday, February 15
Description of store: Upscale health-oriented national chain.

Cleanliness of Produce: A
Overall Merchandising: B
Consumer Information (POS, nutrition, country of origin, recipes, etc.): B
Breadth of Selection: B
Pricing: C
Availability of Produce Personnel: B
Knowledge of Produce Personnel: B
Unique Produce Department Features: C

High Point of Produce Department: It’s a lively section of the store, well lit with lots of organic selection. The items are easy to find and well labeled.

Low Point of Produce Department: It is too predictable. The store always carries the same items, with the same location and display. I could walk this department in my sleep — and I am never surprised.

Observations: The offerings are somewhat disjointed. There is a wet rack at the front, bagged pre-cut veggies on one side of the department and bagged pre-cut salads and fruit on the other. All of the bulk and whole items are in the center. And while this in itself is fine, the aisles are tight. When the produce manager is restocking, it gets a bit crowded.

This department looks completely different than the rest of the store, and it is somewhat outdated. The deli and bakery on the other side of the store are much more open and interactive.

The disconnect in this store is more about energy and experience rather than what is promised versus delivered. Produce should be the main draw of the store, but the other side — with deli, salad bar and hot food — is much more dynamic and inviting at this location. There is virtually nothing to draw me into the produce department with regard to new products or staff engagement.


Regional Chain Store in the South
Time/Day Visited: 5 p.m., Monday, February 24
Description of store: The store is a regional retailer that prides itself on a long history. No two stores are exactly the same. The stores offer grocery, bakery, deli/foodservice, drug/store, produce, floral, meat and seafood departments. The layout is tailored to the demographic needs in each community.

Cleanliness of Produce: A
Overall Merchandising: A
Consumer Information (POS, nutrition, country of origin, recipes, etc.): A+ (The store offered a nice amount of recipes for many products.)
Breadth of selection: A+
(A variety of SKUs and product options from different origins — both nationally and internationally.)
Pricing: A
(Somewhat competitive to the big box stores.)
Availability of Produce Personnel: A
(Produce manager was in the department, and I spoke to him within seconds of arrival. Five or six produce stockers refreshing and filling sections. The produce department was in its PEAK buying time.)
Knowledge of Produce Personnel: A
Unique Produce Department Features: A
(Farm store feel.)

High Point of Produce Department: At least 25% of the store was allocated to produce and floral. There was an abundance of fully stocked bins and boxes so that consumers purchased the freshest produce. The produce manager really cared about the consumers, and he was readily available to help customers and answer any questions.

Low Point of Produce Department: There really are no low points from my observation, only opportunities that I would recommend: there were a few missed opportunities for cross-merchandising produce with meat and seafood items to add more ring.

Observations: So many retailers have developed and marketed convenient, online shopping and offer grocery pick up. This chain is no exception. It was quite apparent this grocer was fulfilling online orders, and the store was carefully maneuvering through the 5 p.m. peak crowd.

There was a real distinct buzz as consumers in the department were filling their baskets with a variety of fruits and vegetables. I also have to give a “shout out” to the gender demographic — there were more males in the produce department than females — probably 60% to 40%.

Overall, the shopping experience was an A+. The friendly, professional staff was more than willing to engage with customers, which provided the best possible customer experience.


Regional Mid-sized Chain in the Northeast
Time/Day Visited: 5:30 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 12
Description of store: This is a regional chain with an upscale customer base. There were no distinguishing slogans that I was able to determine while in the store. This store was definitely space-constrained as compared to nearby competitors.

There is nothing like using your eyes when secretly shopping in the produce department. The number of SKU’s in this particular unit was considerably smaller than the number in its nearest competitor. The best word used to describe the produce department is good, but with a “messy” floor in the area of the greens and broccoli.

The store is old, small and crowded. Standing behind my shopping cart, however, I was not bothered. The checkout employees seemed to be gabbing incessantly and not paying attention to customers standing in line. Customers’ receipts did not appear to be offered, and customers did not seem to request their receipts.

Cleanliness of Produce: B
(Generally the produce appeared fresh, with some exceptions. When I turned over several boxes of strawberries, it indicated age – customers watched, but did not ask questions. In general, the department was messy. There were several pieces of produce that I have to assume had been cleaned during the day and left all over the floor, such as lettuce leaves and bits of broccoli. There were empty boxes everywhere. And perhaps, as a result of the hour, there were zero employees in sight.)
Overall Merchandising: A
(Considering the small size of the produce department, the variety was impressive. The displays were neat, and shelves were adequately stocked. Floral bouquets that had been placed all over the store for Valentine’s Day were fresh and attractive, but no one seemed to pay them much attention as I walked around.)
Consumer Information (POS, nutrition, country of origin, recipes, etc.): D
(The country of origin on the labels indicating Mexico and Chile was clearly visible on the produce. However, nutrition facts and recipes were unavailable.)
Breadth of Selection: A
(Taking into consideration the general size of the department, volumes were small, which meant many of the newer apple varieties were nowhere to be found. The citrus selection was adequate — as was the choice of bananas. The tomato varieties were most definitely lacking. There were no cherry tomatoes, no plum tomatoes, nor any tomatoes on the vine. This department would not be able to generate a large number of produce sales as compared to neighboring supermarkets.)
Pricing: A
(Price still matters, even in wealthy areas. The featured items were displayed well and undercut the pricing of the competition across the board. Consumers appeared to respond to these savings, as carts had adequate produce that was going to be purchased.)
Availability of Produce Personnel: D
(The hour was later in the day, which may have contributed to a scarcity of personnel. To my way of thinking, this is a mistake. As long as the chain is open for business, produce personnel should be available to answer questions about the commodities and SKUs — including the more common items in the produce aisles, such as apples, specialty bag salads, specialty lettuces and citrus varieties. Shoppers might want to inquire about new flavors, such as cotton candy grapes and champagne grapes, among others, on display.)
Knowledge of Produce Personnel: D
(They were missing in action.)
Unique Produce Department Features: A
(There was definitely competitive pricing and clear availability of new salad bowls and pre-cut vegetables that were featured at the entrance of the department — along with bagged baby avocados five for $6 and five-sized pineapples for $1.99. For the lack of Hispanic customers that was evident, the display of mangos was impressive.)

The best word used to describe the produce department is good, but with a “messy” floor in the area of the greens and broccoli.

High Point of Produce Department: The marketing of the produce, which was logistically difficult in such a small space compared to most other retailers in the area, was well done. Pre-cut vegetables were available at the front of the department in abundance, including pre-packaged guacamole.

Low Point of Produce Department: There were no point-of-sale materials, and there were no tips on how to store and preserve produce. The scattered pieces of produce on the floor at the end of the day were unfortunate in an otherwise reasonable department.

Serious attention needs to be paid to the lack of cleanliness on the floors of this department. I noticed the absence of chips next to the guacamole, which are always available in the supermarket where I regularly shop. The reason might have been because of lack of space, although it could be argued that more guacamole would be sold if the chips were side-by-side.

Observations: It has been some time since I last shopped in this location. There is enough competition with value-added products and definitely a greater variety of seasonal items elsewhere.

Checkout lanes are narrow as are the lanes throughout the store. Better logistics and innovation might help.

Most of produce was more pedestrian than unique, but it was displayed well considering the lack of space.


Hispanic-oriented Regional Chain in the Northeast
Time/Day Visited: 1 p.m., Friday, February 7

Description of store: This is a regional chain, with a reasonably sized Hispanic base, many utilizing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program. Store flyers indicate healthy eating items and are part of the store’s overall messaging.

There were large, well displayed items as you entered the store to highlight Valentine’s Day. Flowers, candy, paper goods and cards were hard to miss and the candy was well priced for the holiday. The store features a full-service bakery department with items made in-house, including various specialty breads, which looked very appealing.

Cleanliness of Produce: B
(One caveat — there were items on shelves that appeared messy or missing entirely.)
Overall Merchandising: B
(The chain features large, formatted stores of many aisles with items for several economic levels. In the produce department, for example, one small section featured plantains, waxed yucca, ginger, garlic, avocados and pineapples.)
Consumer Information (POS, nutrition, country of origin, recipes, etc.): D
(There were no recipes and no country-of-origin labels, but the item nutrients were well noted.)
Breadth of selection: A
Availability of Produce Personnel: F
(The produce employees were visibly non-existent while I was in the store.)
Knowledge of Produce Personnel: F
(There was no one available to ask.)
Unique Produce Department Features: A
(There were several new apple varieties on display. There was also Chilean summer fruit in abundance, plenty of organic items available, spiralized squash, cut-up butternut squash, fresh herbs, pomelos, red kiwi and a well stocked berry section.)
Unique Produce Department Features: A
(Farm store feel.)

High Point of Produce Department: There were large strawberry, blueberry and raspberry displays that were well taken care of. As previously mentioned, the apple variety was impressive, as was the display of both organic and regular bananas.

Lowest Point of Produce Department: There were numerous opened bags of grapes that were well picked-over on much too small of a display. Likewise the bags of Bing cherries were picked over with some bags partially empty. There were watermelon halves showing too much age. There was only a very small section of colored peppers and no variegated potatoes. The yams were aging, the lettuces were wilting, and the bag salads were outdated.

At one point, a customer opened a bag of what appeared to be 140-size Honeycrisp and then proceeded to dump the entire bag on the display of larger 100-size Honeycrisp apples, sold in bulk. There were no employees available to remove the plastic bag, and the smaller apples were sold with the larger apples from the display.

The yams were aging, the lettuces were wilting, and the bag salads were outdated.

When I mentioned it to customer service, they called the manager of the produce department to the courtesy desk. He said, “thank you,” gave me a free 100-size apple, and left. There were empty banana and apple boxes left along the shelves that also blocked the aisles.

It appeared that the few customers in the store were clearly accustomed to maneuvering their carts around these ill-placed boxes.

Observations: The floors were clean and the aisles were of adequate width. One of the advertised specials of the week — broccoli crowns — was displayed poorly, and there was an extremely messy lettuce display. For customers looking to purchase the broccoli crowns on special, there was an obvious disconnect.

The aisles appeared too crowded with several movable racks of impulse items, such as croutons, boxes of make-your-own salad dressings, cake for the strawberries, wrapped garlic, dried cranberries and a variety of nuts. These items were likely complementary to salads, but the overall effect was overcrowding, which caused a great deal of difficulty maneuvering carts through tight spaces.

Meet our Mystery Shoppers

Bil Goldfield
Director, Corporate Communications, Dole Food Company, Inc.
Westlake, Village, CA

Myra Gordon
Executive Administrative Director, Hunts Point Terminal Produce Coop. Association, Inc.
Bronx, NY

Cindy Jewell
President, Jewell Marketing, SC Jewell Inc.
Aptos, CA

Priscilla Lleras-Bush
President, Prestige Resources, Inc.
Dallas, TX

John Pandol
Director of Special Projects, Pandol Bros., Inc.,
Delano, CA

Editor’s Note: If you are interested in being a Mystery Shopper “reporter” for future issues of PRODUCE BUSINESS, we’d like to hear from you! Industry insiders who wish to do store inspections throughout the year will be given “report cards” to simply fill out and make observations. Please contact us by emailing ProduceBusiness@PhoenixMediaNet.com or call 561-994-1118, ext 101