Mike Roberts crescendos sales, consumption and community health, composing a concerto of industry partners, some pulling at his heartstrings.
Originally printed in the April 2023 issue of Produce Business.
Mike Roberts, vice president of produce operations at Harps Food Stores, a 143-store, employee-owned chain, headquartered in Springdale, AR, would be a brilliant merchandiser whether his home base was a stone’s throw from Bentonville, AR, or, for that matter, Boise, ID; Bakersfield, CA; Boca Raton, FL; or Bangor ME.
Roberts has led exemplary strategies to sell and market fresh fruits and vegetables, elevating the produce department’s stature and its competitive distinction. He attributes the cornerstone of his success to concerted, impactful industry partnerships, furthering his personal goal to increase overall produce consumption and community health, especially for those in need. This encapsulates why Roberts is the 2023 Produce Business Merchandiser of the Year.
“Mike Roberts is not only an amazing merchandiser, but he also spends his time helping his community by increasing the produce footprints in his stores. Mike provides more opportunity for his consumers to increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables,” says Tara Murray, vice president of marketing at Fresh Innovations, Rhome, TX, in nominating him for the award.
“Mike is also a leading retailer partner with Healthy Family Project,” Murray adds. “To me, being a great merchandiser is not only about creating a beautiful and tasty produce department, but also going the extra mile and teaming up with great organizations to truly encourage healthier eating. Mike Roberts does all of this!”
Harps has thrived, in no small part due to Roberts’ prowess in his 28-year tenure, when the chain bourgeoned from a mere 20 stores to 143, the majority in Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, but with locations also in Kansas, Louisiana and Mississippi.
“You know where Springdale’s located,” Roberts quips with an affable Southern drawl, “15 miles from Bentonville, AR. There’s a Walmart on every corner around here.”
“So, Walmart is our main competition, and they are competitive as all get out,” he says. “They’ve made us better merchandisers and merchants. We’ve had to find ways to stay in business around them.”
Roberts has been in the industry 35 years, 28 of them at Harps, and before that, at a couple of other chains in Arkansas. Serendipitously, “I kind of worked for Walmart in the early days,” through an acquisition in 1990. “Walmart owned some stores that I worked for, but sold them off. I was in the last group of 10 stores they sold and, lucky for me, that was Harps Food Stores, and I decided to stay with them. And it was the best decision I ever made,” he says.
Roberts gives credit where credit is due, a quality he radiates. “Walmart is good at what they do, and I have a ton of respect for them. They have market share, and I understand that. But we hold our own in every market that we share with them, and Kroger — those are our main competitors,” he says. “Our goal is to give consumers an experience that is different from Walmart, not just Walmart, but any competitor across every market that we’re in.”
At the same time, Roberts fosters strengthening the produce industry with the goal of increasing overall produce consumption and the loftier benefits that accrues.
ORCHESTRATING PRODUCE FOOTPRINTS
The produce department at Harps is important, and Roberts has been instrumental in expanding its footprint and positioning. However, the process is not straightforward because of the chain’s growth path, with probably half of the stores built from the ground up, and half from acquisitions, he explains.
“We’ve inherited some stores, where obviously the produce department is not at where we might want it today because it’s hard to move the whole department. So, the produce department varies by size of the department and its location in a lot of our stores.”
“When we can, we try to position produce right up front and give it adequate space,” he says. “We can’t say every store is like that, but it’s our goal.”
“For us, it just exudes freshness and what we’re about,” Roberts says, “We want people to walk straight onto the floor of the produce department when they come into the stores to get all the aromas of the different fresh fruits and vegetables and the sights.”
“Simply put, you open the door to some great displays of produce. It’s really set up to entice you into the produce department when you come into the store,” he says.
Roberts emphasizes presentation. “I’m an old merchant, so we do a lot of hand stacking, when we’ll use both bulk and packaged displays. The biggest thing to me is that it’s a fresh display. We’re not going to stack potatoes at the front of the store. It’s going to be a nice, beautiful display of tote bag peaches or clementines or full pack corn.”
Promotions follow the seasons, he adds. “We put strawberries in front of the store in mid-April, and we’ll do Vidalia onions, which is a big promotion. Amaize corn (a white sweet corn) is usually in May — we’ll build huge displays, both loose and packaged. Then Arkansas tomatoes start in June.”
Cross-merchandising is important, Roberts says, “but the one thing I preach, and we stress, is we still want to push the produce that the display is there for, and the cross-merchandising items are just supposed to be an accent.”
Although the store layouts are different, the displays on the promotions are consistent across all the stores, he adds. “We just decide what’s the best thing for our market area, from north to south, from east to west, and then from there we’ll build a promotion.”
Each store’s allocations are different, based on the surrounding demographics. “We go all the way from Kansas down to about 60 miles off the coast of Mississippi,” Roberts explains, “so, we’ve got a wide net out there. Not everything is the same.
Like the master merchandiser he is, Roberts knows his customers. For example, Harps runs a deer hunter promotion, (“we call a deer camp special”), where stores highlight items that hunters can take to their camps — 15 pounds of potatoes, 5 pounds of carrots, 5 pounds of onions.
“The secret behind that is that nobody is ever going to use 5 pounds of carrots at deer camp, and I know that because I’ve been to deer camp 100 times,” Roberts laughs. “But no guy is showing up with a 1-pound bag of carrots. I’m going to sell him a 5-pound bag of carrots, he’s probably not going to eat them, and they’re probably going to go bad, but out in the woods, it won’t harm the environment.”
Harps stores sit in meat-and-potatoes country, “but there’s a lot of great produce out there that we like to give to our customers,” Roberts stresses. “We’re working on a mango promotion right now to get that great piece of fruit in our consumers’ mouths — give them a good price and give them the education about it to see if we can’t introduce something else to their diet.”
“I’ve tried it with artichokes, and other different items, some successful, some not, but we do like to give our customers something they can’t find at other places,” he says.
BRANDING YOUR DEPARTMENT
The Harps produce department is “pretty branded,” says Roberts. “We pull the majority of our produce through Associated Wholesale Grocers, which is a co-op. Within that, they have nine divisions, and we pull from three of them. We try to do private label across that. We have a bunch of stores with this one, 20 stores with this one, 15 stores with this one — so private label for us is usually kind of a challenge.”
“I don’t like label pollution, so that’s why we are very brand loyal with the partners that we have, like Shuman onions, and Peelz citrus, RPE potatoes, or Tasteful Selections, and SamSonS grapes. Red Sun Farms tomatoes is another great partner, too,” he notes. “We try to keep our label consistency within our departments and to build that consumer trust. They know when they see that label, it’s good.”
RIGHT PRODUCT, RIGHT PRICE, RIGHT PARTNER
Harps also encourages local growers to apply to be a local vendor. When the chain gets an application, the field specialist in that area makes sure the farm is up to standards, GAP certified, producing high-quality fruits and vegetables, and negotiates pricing with the vendor.
Harps makes signage that will highlight the farm, to send to the stores. “We do highlight local when we can,” Roberts explains. “But as spread out as we are, it’s hard to manage local farms from the head office, so we put it in the hands of the regional field specialists. It’s a good program and allows us to sell very locally grown produce. These products are delivered direct from the farm to the stores.”
To sell more produce, Roberts says, the first thing you need is an eye-catching display to get people to stop. “And then you must have it priced correctly, which doesn’t mean you have to give it away, but it needs to be priced well — that means priced so a consumer will consider it.”
From there, consumer education is essential, he adds, whether QR codes or signage with information. Harps also works to educate produce managers on the best way to maintain a product’s quality and integrity, who can then educate shoppers. “Take mangos, for instance. When you bring mangos in off the truck, you can’t put them in the cooler, you’ve got to put them out just like bananas, and not ruin the taste of them, so we have a good piece of fruit consumers can take home.”
Roberts works with many of the commodity boards or industry groups, such as the National Mango Board, the Idaho Potato Commission, the Michigan Apple Committee or Avocados from Mexico.
“I let my partners be the experts in their field, I don’t try to act like I know everything about everything I do, because I don’t,” he explains. “What I like to do is form really, really, good partnerships with good people, who are smart and have great products to offer. And then rely on them to show me the way to promote their products.”
Roberts features produce items at Harps you’d be hard pressed to find at other retailers in its market areas. As for differentiating its produce department, Roberts has secured some exclusive deals.
Amaize sweet corn is one of its exclusive deals, says Roberts. Branch, a Family of Farms, (Hugh H. Branch Inc.) in South Bay, FL, grows it for Harps, which has exclusive rights to it in their markets from GoldenSun Insights.
“Amaize corn is really the best corn in the world, and I’m a corn connoisseur,” he adds.
Harps also carries Lori Anne peaches from Titan farms, and that’s exclusive to their market area.
Roberts launched Harps’ first Facebook page for the produce department 12 years ago as a colorful, interactive platform to connect with consumers, and now the retailer is on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok. A creative social media coordinator now guides the marketing efforts, which have included quirky contests such as guessing the weight of a pumpkin, and smashing one, while another TikTok video showed how many rubber bands it took to split a watermelon.
ROBERTS STEPS UP
Roberts is proud of all the chain’s partnerships and involvement in produce organizations, particularly the Southeast Produce Council (SPC), which he will chair next year. Roberts and Gary Baker, senior director of fresh at Merchants Distributors, Hickory, NC, also co-chair the SPC STEP-UPP Program, Southeast Educational Program for Up-and-Coming Professionals.
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INNOVATIONS TO INCREASE SHELF-LIFE AND REDUCE FOOD WASTE
Mike Roberts, this year’s Produce Business Merchandiser of the Year, is always looking at ways to extend shelf life of produce and its eating quality, and is particularly keen to incorporate new technologies that are natural and don’t alter the fruit.
The strategy is a win on several fronts, from a business standpoint as well as a merchandising / promotional opportunity to increase produce consumption, while tackling food waste as part of its sustainability platform.
“We were one of the first retailers to do the Apeel Sciences treatment process with avocados,” Roberts says of the program Harps started in 2018. “It’s an edible plant-based coating on fruits and vegetables to make them last longer. It’s all organic, all USDA certified.”
“It’s a cool program as a business,” Roberts says, “but it goes to something bigger, which is something I like to do, and Harps likes to do, and that is reduce food waste within our community.”
It can be applied on other produce items in addition to avocados, and Harps has also used it on limes and hothouse cucumbers.
This year, Harps will also be using Verdant technology, which is similar but different, Roberts explains.
“The end goal is really to extend the shelf life, not only on our shelves, but in consumers’ homes, so they’ll have more time to eat the produce items they purchase,” he adds. “That’s a big deal to me, because I want us to reduce landfill waste. I’ve seen firsthand the amount of produce that is wasted in the country.”
Harps also does a lot of work with local food waste, such as food loop companies that come four times a week to some store locations and pick up all cut fruit scraps, any produce waste, and compost it. These businesses sell the compost back to the community.
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HAPPENSTANCE TRIGGERED ROBERTS’ SIDE PASSION
Mike Roberts, vice president of produce operations, Harps Food Stores, became a diehard proponent of the Produce for Kids/Healthy Family Project by happenstance.
Back in 2012-2013, his boss told him to attend a No-Kid-Hungry Campaign meeting in Little Rock, AR. “I was busy, and I’ll tell you, I didn’t want to go,” Roberts remembers.
“But I went, and listened as this elementary school teacher shared her revelation and dismay upon understanding why, on Monday morning, the breakfast line was five times as long as any other day of the week. She said it finally hit her — that these kids weren’t eating all weekend. They were dying to come to school to get something to eat. It tore at my heartstrings.”
Roberts did a little bit of work with that organization, and was looking to build a program at Harps “to feed kids better and increase nutrition and to make sure they were eating,” he says.
In 2016, Roberts was at a Southeast Produce Council event, and, by chance, sat down next to Amanda Keefer, who runs the Healthy Family Project. “And we just got to talking. I had no idea she was with that company, and she had no idea I was a retailer. After that conversation was over, we knew each other better, and we followed up from there. It took a year and a half or so, but we finally got it into Harps and instituted the whole program.”
The Harps Produce for Kids campaign has resulted in an estimated 80,000 meals distributed annually to four Feeding America food banks in the Harps areas. (The Harps campaign is part of the larger Associated Wholesale Grocers (AWG) Springfield Division campaign, which includes Pyramid Foods, Town & Country, Woods Supermarkets and G&W Foods.)
PRODUCE FOR KIDS SATURDAYS
Harps’ partners also support the chain’s Healthy Family Project/Produce for Kids program, says Roberts, through Produce for Kids Saturday promotions. (Harps is part of this broader retail and digital cause marketing effort, which started in 2002.) The Produce for Kids Saturday promotions are a series of sales that start around Memorial Day and continue into the fall, with the goal of encouraging families to increase produce consumption.
Every partner, or sponsor, gets a Saturday when their produce item is featured. “We drop the price, bottoming out the price of that thing, and we’ll build big displays, with special signage.” The Healthy Family Project provides shirts, featuring the sponsors on the backs of the T-shirts, which the whole produce department wears on those Saturdays. And each vendor gets special signage for its product, showing sponsorship. They also get highlighted in the ads with their item.
On Produce for Kids Saturdays, Harps’ produce departments distribute “Healthy Bucks” to families and children. (“It looks like fake money,” Roberts explains.) A Healthy Buck is good for a dollar off any produce item in the entire department, and has a four-digit PLU number on it, so when shoppers give it to the cashier, it takes a dollar off the total bill.
But it can’t be spent on purchases from the soda aisle or the cookie aisle — it’s just for the produce department, which features signage explaining the coupon, too.
“We’ll do overhead announcements, both live and pre-recorded, and get everybody involved and excited about eating healthy fruits and vegetables.”
When customers see the display, they have questions and want to engage with the produce manager, Roberts adds. Harps also has handouts that explain the program and can direct them to Harps micro site, which suggests recipes based on the item selection being sponsored.