Step Out Of The Office And Take A Field Trip

Don Harris - Retail Perspective

Sometimes, progressive produce retailers need to break out of their normal routines and shift away from promotional, merchandising and strategic tasks and get a new perspective by getting “outside of the office.”

Yet, when asking permission to do something different, those executive might hear this kind of response from upper management: “You don’t need to go on this mission. You need to be here taking care of your operation, making decisions and analyzing sales data and profitability. Leaving your office without its leadership is not something you should do.”

This attitude once again proves the adage that in terms of the produce operation, “they just don’t get it!”

Although it may seem logical for produce executives to be directing operations from the office, a good executive must get out and perform real-world evaluations of situations in the marketplace to maintain quality and stimulate growth. The solution: take a trip into the field to get a hands-on feel of what is happening within your stores and your competition’s stores, as well as evaluating consumer behavior and spending habits.

This “field trip” should be done periodically to ensure that executives have a pulse on the marketplace. It must be done in a clandestine manner to assure actual, unaltered and honest observations. It cannot be just another “store visit” that everyone knows is coming, where retailers have a chance to only show the best of their operations.

The first field trip should be to one of your own operations. This should be done on a weekend, outside of normal business hours, to one of your locations where you are not well known or have not visited recently. This visit must be incognito; you should dress as a normal customer pushing a cart through the department. This will allow you to observe key areas such as appearance, in-stock conditions, labor efficiency and interaction with consumers. While “shopping” the department, you can also gain valuable insights from their behavior, including shopping patterns, preferences, questions being asked, customer interaction with other customers, and the general overall feeling or “buzz” throughout the Department. This information is vital to evaluating the success of your merchandising and promotional activity as well as the efficiencies of your strategic plans and use of labor. Retail executives will get a “snapshot” of the state of their retail operations.

The second destination, also in off-hours or on a weekend, would be to visit your competitor(s). In addition to looking closely at the same important areas mentioned above, you will get a chance to spot “weak spots” in the operation and leverage those to attract additional customers. You can also judge the atmosphere of the store and listen to what customers are saying about their shopping experiences.

The last destination to hit on your “field trip” is a visit to a local farmers’ market. Customers who tour these markets often cite their reputation for being “fresh from the field” and being a place where you can find new things and new items. By walking through the farmers’ market, you see what types of strategies are being used by each vendor and how they interact with consumers to gain their confidence and enhance their perception of being “fresh.” There is also a wealth of information at these markets, from what kinds of trends consumers are following to what types of items excite them and move them to make a purchase. Their actions and interactions can help guide you in your merchandising and promotional strategies.

By getting out of the office on this type of “field trip,” you can enhance the skills you are utilizing in the office in planning, directing and operating your retail stores. This type of activity provides you with a fresh perspective and outlook on what is happening in the Produce marketplace in your area, and it can revive a retailer’s inherent drive to improve his operation. Best of all, it provides a “reality check” on the present status of the operation, which can help fine-tune actions of stores and help build momentum of both sales and profits.

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. He is presently consulting. Comments can be directed to