Q&A with Food Lion’s Ricky Rommell

Ricky Rommell

This successful produce manager keeps ‘FRESH’ fun and on the front lines.

Ricky Rommell, produce regional lead trainer at Salisbury, NC-based Food Lion’s Wallace, NC, store, is one of 25 honorees in United Fresh’s 2017 Retail Produce Manager Awards Program. The awards program recognizes the best of the produce industry’s front line by honoring supermarket produce managers who work daily to increase sales and consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables.

At age 16, Rommell, 46, began working at Food Lion after attending high school during the day in Wilmington, NC. He was promoted to produce manager two years after graduating high school and has worked at 28 Food Lion stores as a trainer in perishables.

Rommell recently talked with Produce Business about what it takes to successfully engage shoppers.

One of the training methods he uses is to have associates memorize the acronym, FRESH. F stands for Full and abundant produce displays. R is for product that has to be Ready to sell. E means Engaging customers. S is for Signage, while H represents Harvest to Home.

Q: How important is FRESH to produce merchandising?

A: Everything one does in produce revolves around freshness, timeliness, scheduling, ordering and planning. The product has to be full and in abundance. When a store limits its selection, it limits its sales. While many competitors may be ready during the peak shopping times of 4 to 7 p.m., in our stores, we like to be ready earlier in the morning to allow for a full selection of variety.

Q: How important is customer engagement?

A: If they’re not familiar with the product, a lot of customers won’t buy it. You must build an emotional connection with them by talking with them, engaging with them and getting them familiar with the product, which is what helps produce sales.

Q: How does customer engagement help produce sales?

A: It’s a critical part of business. If you want to grow your produce sales, the more you talk, the more you sample, the more you sell. Nine times out of 10, if you can get the product in the shoppers’ mouths, you can get it in their carts.

Q: School store tours and math nights are important activities you’ve developed. How do you interest younger generations in eating produce?

A: It’s very important to get the community and children involved. Tours allow us to talk with the children and parents, and show them what we do. It’s important to make it a fun atmosphere, like getting a child to help me unclog the sprayer in the wet vegetables section.

Q: How do the tours help stores?

A: School visits are a critical time for us to communicate and connect with the children and their parents and get them to sample products they’ve never tasted. Many have eaten canned pineapple, but you wouldn’t believe how many have never tasted fresh pineapple. With Dole’s partnership with Disney, you have 4-year-olds asking for iceberg head lettuce due to the label which features a red sports car from Cars. Do whatever you can to get the kids to taste something they haven’t tasted before. It may be in their heads that they never liked it when they haven’t tried or tasted it. Engage with them and you will grow sales.

Q: What’s different these days in running produce departments?

A: Increased store deliveries, which is important for fresh produce. We used to get three deliveries a week. Now, in some regions, we’re getting five deliveries a week. The orders are smaller, but we have better turns in product, which is fresher for customers. It’s really increasing the freshness standards in our company.

Q: What trends do you see?

A: I see more people interested in digital and convenience, the packaged and ready-to-go products that are convenient and ready-to-eat. I am seeing people 60 to 65 years of age with smartphones, which you didn’t see 10 years ago. Apps are a destination for savings, recipes and coupons. Food Lion is texting coupons. Customers are now so savvy with smartphones. The digital aspect of it is really helping us with sales.

Q: What got you into produce?

A: Ever since I could walk, my father had me in a garden. As I knew so much about fruit and vegetables, I figured produce would be a great way to go. At 16, I knew more about produce than most produce managers. I was very comfortable with produce. That’s why I started with it and stayed in it.

Q: What keeps you in produce?

A: Helping people keeps me in it. As people shop in the store, they know exactly where to get cans of beans or cheese from the deli. Produce is different. There’s so much interaction. There’s constant engagement because many don’t know when an item is ripe. It’s important to not spend time in the back room. I’m always on the sales floor filling product and talking and engaging with customers. You have to stay on the rack instead of the back.