Mystery Shopper: Retail Recon

Undercover shoppers search for ingredients to make the perfect salad.

Originally printed in the March 2024 issue of Produce Business.

Salads are a staple in the American diet. It can take many forms, from kale to Caesar to the simple mixed green salad — a creative dish with endless variations. Salads are packed with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals essential for good health and are a healthy and convenient way to boost produce consumption.

So this year, Produce Business sent its mystery shoppers in search of the perfect fresh ingredients for a healthy salad.

For more than 35 years, Produce Business magazine has devoted a cover story to informing supermarket retailers about the perceptions shoppers may experience in their produce departments. This year, we wanted to learn how this category is faring across the country, and explore how stores merchandise fresh salad ingredients.

In the 2018 U.S. Department of Agriculture study, Salad Consumption in the U.S.: What We Eat in America, one out of five people eat a salad each day. The study also found about one-half of salads were eaten at dinner.

The ingredients of a salad can vary widely, but usually include a base of leafy greens. Other common ingredients include tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, onions, peppers and mushrooms. Salads can also include fruits, nuts or seeds. Salads can be a healthy and delicious way to incorporate more vegetables and fruits into your diet. They can be enjoyed as a side dish or as a main course.

For convenience, it’s easy to find salad kits in-store, but shoppers are also looking for leafy greens like arugula, kale, Swiss chard, bok choy, cabbage or spinach. With the boom of social media trends, shoppers are also scanning the produce section these days for watercress, shallots, pomegranates, prunes, mint and serrano chile, too.

To see how retailers are stocking and merchandising produce salad ingredients, we unleashed our mystery shoppers. Here’s what we found:

Great Produce, But No Help From Employee

I headed to a grocery store, a regional chain with supermarkets in 10 states, in my town. I went on a Sunday morning, thinking it would be less busy and I might have a better chance of talking with an employee. I entered the produce department (I was the only customer there), and — eureka! — there was an employee in the produce department.

Overall, the store’s produce department was clean, with eye-catching color blocking, and I’d give them an A for merchandising (although there was little point-of-sale nutrition information or recipe cards, other than the country-of-origin stickers on the product). I was surprised by the breadth and diversity of the produce available, and the produce pricing is among the lowest in my town.

The employee was pulling produce off the shelf that had gone bad and was organizing the leafy greens to look nice.

My “salad persona” was one that was familiar with typical salads, but looking for a different option for a dinner. Basically, I wanted something outside of plain lettuce for my salad.

As I approached the employee, he did not ask if I needed help. I said, “Excuse me, I need some help,” and he turned to look at me.

“I need some help for a dinner that I am going to with my friends and I am in charge of bringing a salad,” I explained. “Do you have any suggestions for a salad that is not pre-packaged?”

The employee looked at me and said, “No.”

I then asked, “Do you have a favorite type of salad, or do you know someone else in the store who does?”

The employee said, “I don’t do salad.”

I persisted. “Do you have any suggestions for a fruit salad or something? I have heard about a mango and avocado salad.”

The employee said, “That does sound good. The fruit options would be over there,” and pointed me toward the front of the produce section.

I said, “Thank you” and walked away.

While the store had a variety of options, the employee working in the section was not knowledgeable enough to help answer my questions or provide suggestions, and lost the store the potential for added sales that a little knowledge or encouragement might have sparked.

Friendly, Knowledgeable Produce Employee

We went to a local market on a Thursday morning, hoping to find produce and advice to make a tangerine-pistachio-kale salad for guests. The store, serving a generally upscale community, is a local market owned by a national banner and major food and drug retailer.

The large produce department was near the front of the store. A large display of Sumo citrus, flanked by pomegranates, near the entrance gave the produce department a colorful and cheerful opening. It was a clean produce department, with many items well merchandised, however point-of-sale nutrition information or other product information was minimal.

When we entered the produce department, a worker was culling the bananas and kiwi near the back. We caught her eye as we approached, and she put down her bananas and came to meet us.

Our first request was help finding the lacinato kale. She directed us first to the cooler, which offered a bagged Taylor Farms asiago kale salad kit with Brussels sprouts, kale, parmesan and asiago cheese. After we said we were looking for bulk kale as an ingredient, she led us to the front of the department and pointed out the lacinato kale.

After we asked how you make kale edible, she said, “It is easier to chew if you chop it fine.” Then she explained that was why she had first taken us to the kit with the kale already chopped.

There was an abundant supply of tangerines, as they were in season in the citrus capital of the country less than 200 miles away.

We resumed our conversation with the employee by saying we did not know if any of our guests have nut allergies and asked if there is a replacement for the pistachios.

She pointed to packages of crispy jalapeños, parmesan and bacon. When we said we would prefer fresh produce, she suggested we could try jicama.

“Come back later and let us know how you like it,” she said as we put the unfamiliar, to us, root vegetable in our shopping cart.

Unripe Produce, Friendly Employee

I walked into the store at 11 a.m. on a Monday morning and headed past the floral and bakery departments to the produce. The national chain is known for unique products under its own label.

Of the items the store carries, organic and conventional options are typically offered, and the difference is clearly labeled. Countries of origin are sometimes called out on the hand-written displays.

I looked for a store associate to help me. A gentleman was crouched down restocking shelves, so I approached him and I asked him for help. “Do you have any mangos?” I asked.

He immediately stopped what he was doing, got up, and headed toward the tropical fruits. “Sometimes we do, and sometimes we don’t,” he said.

He led me over to the small section that housed around 10 mangos, all of them very unripe.

“Oh, they aren’t ripe,” I said. “Hm, yeah they need a few days still,” he said, “but we do have papaya.”

He pointed to the papaya, which, although closer to ripeness than the mango, still looked rather unripe. “Hm. I might change strategies,” I said. “What else do you have that could be good in a winter salad?”

He pointed me to the wall of bagged and ready-to-eat greens. “Kale, arugula, lettuce, or a bag mixed ‘power greens’ are good options,” he said.

I went with the bag of power greens and mentioned I really love avocado. “We have two sizes of avocado just right here,” he pointed out just behind us. I picked up a couple of bags of those and then told him I wanted to add some dried fruits and nuts. Just next to the produce section was a wall of dried fruits and nuts.

“These dried cranberries are nice and tart, no sugar added,” the employee said. “We also have a few different pistachio options so you can add something crunchy.”

I picked up a bag of roasted and salted pistachios and then some tomatoes for good measure.
“Can I help you with anything else?” the employee asked.

“I have more shopping I can do on my own,” I said. “Thanks so much for your help!”

A+ Employee Gives Great Advice

While visiting friends in another state, I took the opportunity to check out a new-to-me supermarket, looking for ingredients for a kale, blood orange, pomegranate and pistachio salad. The store is part of a large supermarket chain, with more than 1,000 locations in eight states. I visited midmorning on a Thursday.

Entering the store and veering to the right, you pass the deli and bakery before getting to the small, but clean, produce department. Since I wasn’t familiar with this store, it wasn’t hard to pretend I didn’t know where anything was! But an employee was stocking product, so I pulled out my phone with the ingredient list, and asked him if they carried Tuscan kale. “I’ve never heard of it,” he said, but whipped out his own phone to look it up. “Oh, yes, we have that. It’s called lacinato kale,” and he led me over to the wall wet display.

“I need 6-8 cups,” I said. “Should I get one or two bunches?”

“I’m not sure,” he said honestly, sharing that his family uses kale in soups and not salads, and went back to his work.

The pomegranates were across the display where he was working, so I asked him how to remove the arils from a whole fruit, and if the hassle was worth it, or if I should just buy the packaged arils. “It’s really easy,” he replied. “You just cut it in half and scoop out the seeds. But the arils are on sale the week,” and he turned to go check that price. When he came back, he said, “Well, it probably is cheaper to get the whole pomegranate.”

I kept shopping, but then returned to him because I didn’t see any blood oranges. “Oh, they should be right here…,” but when he didn’t see any out on display, he offered to check in the back. Sure enough, he returned with a bag.

I also needed to grab the pistachios and garlic, but didn’t bother him for that. Still, when he saw me pausing at the garlic, he turned and asked, “Do you know how to select the freshest garlic?” and proceeded to tell me to compare two heads by weight.

This employee made my day, and made some jokes while he was talking with me. I’d rate the store a B+, but the employee an A+.

Lots of Citrus and Helpful Employee

I went to a rural supermarket in a predominantly white, middle-class community about an hour north of a major city on a Thursday morning. It is part of a regional supermarket chain that has more than 400 locations in five states. The produce department was directly in front of me upon entering the store, and was bright, with clean sightlines.

There was an extensive array of citrus, which was good because I was looking for blood oranges for a kale, blood orange, pomegranate and pistachio salad. I didn’t have to ask a produce employee for help finding the blood oranges since they were immediately in front of me. But, there was no price posted, so I approached a produce staff member who was restocking a nearby display.

“Excuse me, but can you tell me the price of these blood oranges? There’s no price at the display.”
He immediately turned to me and said, “They’re on sale, buy one, get one free. I can scan the item and let you know.” Which he did.

I didn’t need two bags, but for that deal, I grabbed them both!

I then asked about Tuscan (lacinato) kale, and he said, “No, I’m sorry, we don’t carry that,” and pointed to the regular leaf kale instead. “Some of our larger stores may carry that, but we don’t.”

I asked if he knew the difference, taste-wise, and he said no, but thought one was more bitter.

While I had his attention (he never rushed me or seemed put off by my questions), I asked about pomegranate arils and if it was hard to get the arils out, if I bought a whole pomegranate. He said they haven’t received any whole pomegranates for a while, because the one shipment they had received hadn’t sold and had to be pulled.

But he looked at a place on the shelf in the back of the department where the individually packaged arils should be and said, “Hm, I don’t see any back there. Let me go look in the back.”

I kept browsing the produce section, and he soon brought some out to me, opening a shipping box to give me the small container of arils.

While I was waiting, I spied some navel chocolate oranges, in a distinctive brownish hue, and I asked him if he had ever tasted them. He said he hadn’t, but one of the other employees loves them, and offered to go back and get her. I said that was OK and he didn’t need to bother.

Overall, I had a positive experience, and was pleasantly surprised to see more unusual tropical fruit, such as dragon fruit and rambutans, available in this store. But, there was very little point-of-sale product or promotional information, or recipes, except for a sign over the color-blocked display of bulk apples that identified different varieties.

On the downside, I thought the prices on several staple items I was also looking for were very high.

When I went to checkout, I mentioned to the cashier I had never had blood oranges before this month. She asked if I had ever tried the Sumo citrus, and explained what they looked like, how easy to peel they were and how good they were. “And they’re on sale this week,” she added. “They’re on my list to get some.”

If I hadn’t already paid, I would’ve gone back to buy some, just on her recommendation! I thought it was refreshing to have a cashier do another sales pitch for produce.

Nothing Fresh About This Produce Department

I ran to the store in a rural area on a Monday afternoon, with my list in hand for six salads that I was making for my Super Bowl party.

I explained I was serving up a salad bar, with unique and different salads. I needed specific items to make salads I had found on Instagram.

I pulled out my list, and we were off to a disappointing start. Bibb lettuce, no. Lacinato kale, no. Tangerines, no. Napa cabbage, out. Fresh ears of corn, no. I asked for endive, and got another no.
The produce manager said endive was seasonal, and they only carry it at Christmas.

The produce manager was nice, knowledgeable, and apologetic that they did not have the majority of the items I was looking for.

He did take the opportunity to educate a newer employee. He asked the employee if he knew what endive was, and then proceeded to explain that “it was in the lettuce family and it had frilly leaves.”

After asking for watercress and getting another, no, I figured it was time for me to explore a different option.

The produce department did have some unique features: a cross-merchandising display of specialty cheeses, crackers and hot honey was in the middle of the department. They also had an extensive selection of salad toppers, seeds and nuts, nearly a 12-foot section.

Although the produce department’s tagline includes the word “fresh,” I would say there is a disconnect in the department. The apples and potatoes were soft, and the basil was wilted and had black leaves. They had a large selection of bagged salads, but slim to no options when it came to even basic cabbage, Brussels sprouts and heirloom tomatoes.

Not my idea of fresh.

Good Variety of Produce and Helpful Employees

The produce section of this regional chain was just inside the door.

I had my long list of salad ingredients in hand when I visited on a Monday afternoon. I walked the entire produce section twice and could not find an employee. I went to the door greeter, who sent me to customer service. No one was there, so I enlisted the help of a clerk at a register. She paged for produce help to meet me at the bananas.

My expectations were not high at this point. I met a kind young man and explained I had quite a long list of salad items that I needed. I explained I was going to a salad bar Super Bowl party and had found several new and unique salad recipes that I wanted to make.

We started checking items off my list. I was having some success. They had lacinato kale, but only organic. When I asked him what the difference was and why it was so expensive, he said partially because it’s organic. He pulled out his phone, looked it up, and explained that it is more tender, has a milder taste, and didn’t need to be massaged.

Next on the list was tangerines, which the store didn’t have. He suggested I try the bag of tangelos.

The ears of fresh corn were not looking so fresh, he suggested that I just use frozen and that was where I would also find the edamame.

Napa cabbage was next on my list. They only had two humongous heads of Napa cabbage, and the price was $2.49 a pound. We weighed it, and it was 7.5 pounds. I explained there was no way I was paying $18 for cabbage. So, this dear guy said he would go to the service counter and see if he could cut it in half (that it had been done in the past).

I was so impressed with his help and his going the extra mile to make a customer happy. All in all, I was able to find most of the items left on my produce list.

They even had good-looking endive and watercress.

Good Interaction With Employee, Nice Organics Selection

I walked into a high-end Midwest supermarket, a national chain notable for its fresh foods and large selection of prepared foods, baked goods and grocery items, midday during the week.

The first thing I noticed was how nicely the produce was displayed in island displays and the open-air refrigerated display cases. Everything looked enticing, fresh and colorful.

I came across a sole employee stocking the refrigerated case with carrots and celery. He was an older gentleman affixed with a headset. He promptly saw me searching the department and asked how he could help.

“I’m making a watercress salad for the family, looking to try something different, could you direct me to the watercress?” I asked.

He answered that he didn’t think the store carried watercress, first searching the refrigerated display case, before checking via his headset with another produce employee. This staff member verified that, unfortunately, the store didn’t carry watercress.

I then asked the produce employee if he could direct me to the sweet potatoes, which he promptly did by walking me over to one of the island displays.

“We have both regular and an organic version,” he said. “The organic type is a lot more expensive, an extra dollar a pound.”

I inquired what the difference was between the two types, and he said the organic is not sprayed with any pesticides.

The employee took his time answering my questions, so I felt comfortable with the interaction. He also appeared to be knowledgeable and knew who to go to for answers to questions he couldn’t answer.

Produce Department Has Solid Variety

On a Thursday evening, early enough to avoid the after-work shoppers, I visited a store that operates on a major thoroughfare in a middle-class to affluent suburb.

The produce department was at the main store entrance and built back in three aisles perpendicular to the storefront, with the division made by the on-the-floor displays. The aisles were narrow, but the displays were well-maintained.

Cold and wet fixtures lined the building wall. The front included a range of convenience items, such as private-label chunked butternut squash, diced turnips and squash noodles, along with sauces and some more exotic offerings such as standing bagged kimchi.

The greens case followed. Although it was small, at 16 feet wide, it held a solid variety of products, with a small carrot contingent and several fresh herbs such as cilantro and mint in their own little area. There were also leeks, parsnips, turnips and beets, but otherwise the case was filled with greens, including non-green greens such as radicchio.

Price labels were all above the product and also included notes on the commodity they addressed, including information about preparation.

In what likely was the day’s last restocking, two produce department employees worked the section. The clean look of the department attested to their diligence.

I approached the employees and told them I was tasked with purchasing greens for a fresh salad impressive enough for guests. However, I stipulated the greens had to be relatively sweet as greens go. The employees both paused in the restocking to confer about what would best suit my request.

After a bit of discussion, they determined that a good combination would be green leaf, Boston and romaine lettuce. One of the employees even walked me to the greens case.

Of course, we couldn’t let a fancy salad go at just that, so we arrived at the addition of dried fruit. I suggested dried apricots and cranberries, and asked where they might be found. One employee quickly turned and produced private label packs of each, which happened to be merchandised right behind her.

I was impressed by the friendliness and willingness to help demonstrated by employees, and they even paused to give some thought to my requests, as well as the efficiency of how they helped me.

Disconnect in This Produce Section

I had been invited to a chili cook-off party and had been asked to bring a salad that included citrus, to provide some brightness and contrast to the meal. I entered the produce department of a chain grocery store to look for the ingredients, but I left after I discovered they had no tangerines, no bibb lettuce, and no arugula.

At the second stop, a regional Pacific Northwest chain, I noticed right away that three workers in the produce section were actively stocking, which gave me hope of getting help. I quickly see there is no lettuce labeled bibb and don’t see any tangerines.

One older man went into the back and one younger man walked out to another section. That left a second younger man to ask for help. I approached him with my recipe in hand and said that I was looking for bibb lettuce and tangerines.

He says, “I haven’t seen anything here called bibb, but we do have tangerines,” and he guided me over to that bin, which had about a dozen good-looking tangerines in it.

At that point, the older man came back out, and the younger man suggested I ask him about the bibb lettuce, “because he would know if anyone would.”

I approached him with my list in hand and he quickly pointed out that anything labeled butter lettuce or living lettuce would work instead of bibb. Then he said that Boston lettuce and bibb lettuce are the same thing, and that living lettuce was very similar.

I did notice the reason I didn’t find the tangerines was because they were in a bin in a different aisle from the bagged citrus, where I saw navel oranges, grapefruits, tangelos and mandarins. I would have expected the tangerines to be there, but perhaps the reason they were in a different spot, next to the limes, was because they were loose and not bagged.

I called out to the older man again, “Oh, I have one more question.” He quickly turned and gave me his full attention. I asked him if baby arugula was the same as regular arugula. He said yes, and walked over to the packaged greens section while I followed. He looked over the clamshells of greens and found the baby arugula, which I had noticed.

He said, “It’s the same as the regular arugula, it’s just smaller.”

I thanked him, and he went back to his stocking while I went on gathering the ingredients for my salad.