Let’s Talk About Labor, The Elephant In The Room

Don Harris - Retail Perspective

Originally printed in the April 2022 issue of Produce Business.

In the post-pandemic world, one aspect of critical importance to the retail operation has taken on a new and challenging characteristic. The aspect that is often identified as the “elephant in the room” is labor.

Not only is it a challenge to have management allocate enough labor to operate the produce department, but now we must concern ourselves with finding enough personnel to operate the department. Upper management has not changed in its approach to labor, and still sees labor as the only cost it can truly control, and seems oblivious to the additional hurdle of a lack of applicants for positions available in the produce department. This attitude, which has been around for years, only goes to show that even in the new normal, “they just don’t get it!”

The successful produce retailer recognizes this challenge and prepares a strategic plan of how best to utilize not only the hours allocated to the department, but how best to attract, retain and develop quality personnel. This requires a complete focus on the best use of all data available.

First, examine all operations throughout the department to determine their value and potential to operate the department efficiently and drive maximum sales. Prepare a list of best practices that have proven to be successful over time and have shown to generate the best results. Once this list is prepared, provide direction to the store level on the importance of implementing each concept as soon as possible to set the department on the proper direction. Provide strong direction to everyone in your retail operation to be sure they are maximizing the use of the labor hours they receive.

No stone should be left unturned in seeking out potential new hires.

Make sure you provide clear goals and expectations of what they need to accomplish. Unless employees are fully utilizing all their allocated hours to their maximum effectiveness, valuable hours will be wasted on nonessential, unprofitable tasks. Guide each department to efficiently schedule available personnel, with enough hours assigned to the best practices to provide successful results.

The second step in combating the “elephant in the room” is the recruitment and retention of personnel in the department. Over the years, there has been heavy turnover in the produce department, but because of enough new applications, this was accepted as a normal situation. Now, with the lack of new applications, additional effort must be placed upon the hiring of personnel with the potential to become an asset to the department. Strong direction should be given to your operation to identify and obtain the best possible candidates. No stone should be left unturned in seeking out potential new hires.

Once qualified personnel are hired, the process begins to develop and train them to be quality employees. Encourage your department managers to use department veterans to mentor the new hires to help them develop their skills, a proven training tactic. Direction should be provided to show the “whys” of each task, so they know what they are doing and how it fits into the overall success of the operation. Praise and recognition for successful completion of tasks and development of skills are key to providing the new hires with a sense of importance and worth. All this information and direction will help develop and improve the morale, of not only new hires but everyone in the entire department. And as we all know, high department morale and job satisfaction are key to retaining the best workers.

In the coming years, the innovative, successful produce retailer will be the one that can best use its supply of limited resources, especially labor. It will provide direction and strategic initiatives to recruit, train/develop, and retain employees who will maximize the labor hours allocated to the department and generate vibrant sales performance. It must develop every possible means in its power to keep the best employees.

Quality employees will provide your operation with a tremendous competitive advantage in the competitive world of the “new normal.” In this manner, the “elephant in the room” can be tamed and your operations will be armed to meet the ever-changing competitive situation of the “new normal” produce industry.

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.