Merchandising 101: It Starts With People

Don Harris - Retail Perspective

Originally printed in the April 2023 issue of Produce Business.

What makes a good merchandiser at retail? There are several opinions that vary by experience and perception. Upper management says a good merchandiser is one who generates sales and profit projections, plus controls cost. In the produce world, the definition of a good merchandiser is considerably different, although it does contain parts of what upper management covets. But the definition and requirements for a produce merchandiser is far more complicated and, once again, shows that in terms of what makes a good merchandiser, upper management “just doesn’t get it!”

In the world of retail produce, a good merchandiser is worth his weight in gold, as he is the key figure in the formulation and execution of the successful merchandising and sales strategy. Because these individuals are vital to the operation, they are also unique individuals and hard to come by. They need a specific skillset, including a vivid imagination, an innovative and creative mind, a talent for positive risk taking and the forward-looking, all-seeing vision of the future and what is possible.

Effectively merchandising fresh produce also requires the understanding of how to present produce that makes maximum use of color and the natural beauty of all produce commodities. The successful merchandiser also has the skill to take all of his/her artistic inspiration and prepare promotional activity that is unique and customer-driven.

It’s easy to see why it’s so hard to find an individual that fits all these criteria. Compounding this problem is the fact that these requirements are only part of the total picture of a good merchandiser. While having all these traits is a good start, there are other parts of the equation that are needed to fully round out this individual and provide the potential to become a great merchandiser.

In the world of retail produce, a good merchandiser is worth his/her weight in gold.

The second set of skills needed by our potentially great merchandiser are more basic to the performance of his duties. First on this list, is the ability to sell product. In this area, they must be able to balance pricing strategy to drive sales but also, equally important, drive additional volume or units. This takes a particular feel for market conditions, competitive activity and consumer trends. This is accomplished by doing complete research into the marketplace and all the dynamics involved.

This also requires a superior grasp of product knowledge and what it takes to keep each variety of produce at its top level of freshness. This includes the proper care and handling of the product in the back room as well as establishing standards for quality — from receiving at the warehouse to the back door and, ultimately, on the sales floor. To obtain these goals, a merchandiser must provide accurate and timely information on all products to every member of the team and, once this information is supplied, plan and generate a training program to convey these skills to the rest of the operation. This action requires communication skills to accurately convey the actions needed to achieve the goals set for the department.

This leads us into the third aspect of developing a good produce merchandiser: effective communication.

The complete produce merchandiser must have a command of all channels of communication, from buying and receiving, to direction and proper execution, and ultimately managing and setting expectations of performance and success. This quality cannot be overrated, and it is key to the overall success of the produce merchandiser.

As mentioned earlier, this communication includes the sharing of information relating to produce to everyone at all levels of the organization. Knowledge is power, and we rely on the merchandiser to get this information out in a timely manner.

Another key aspect of communication ability is to provide complete, easy-to-follow directions on how to execute the operations and plans within the department. Good, clear communication in this area is a must and can be the reason why a candidate fails, despite having all the other traits necessary. On this stage, a person with good communication skills is an extremely valuable addition to any operation.

A successful merchandiser must also have the ability to cooperate with produce personnel as well everyone in the entire store environment. The spirit of mutual respect and the readiness to help the entire store be successful is extremely valuable, as it enhances the merchandiser’s ability to get things done.

The development of good merchandisers is crucial to the success of any operation. While finding an individual possessing all these qualities may be difficult, there are various ways of developing good merchandisers, and the key is the recognition of talent that exists in your operation.

Many successful retailers have developed outstanding merchandisers by finding people in their operation that have some of the qualities in abundance and then mentoring them to become creative and effective merchandisers. The effort expended in finding and developing talented individuals into fully functional merchandisers is time well spent because of the key role they play in the success of the operation.

Who knows, maybe with your full support and mentorship, a good merchandiser can become a great one.

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