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Retail Reflections

The Lost Art of Produce Merchandising

An interesting aspect of the retail produce industry is the frequency with which individuals change jobs. Historically, many employees held positions for decades or an entire career. It was customary for new hires, for example a buyer, to be mentored by a “seasoned pro.” This person, in most cases, was a man who had “come up through the ranks,” had experience working in stores, and started off buying limited items or categories. Over the years, he “learned the ropes” and “paid his dues,” establishing himself as a credible and capable buyer, able to achieve results by leveraging his experience and relationships.

This has evolved over the past 10 years or so, and today’s buyer has a very different profile. To understand why, you must consider the role from two perspectives: (1) the characteristics of the new generation of young people entering the job market; and (2) the impact of publicly-held companies in the retail business.

Individuals looking at a possible career in produce are better educated, more culturally diverse, have many interests, and a different opinion of what constitutes work/life balance. They are pragmatic problem solvers, have developed presentation skills, and are much more aware of career options. They also have a greater interest in how companies are viewed in the context of social issues, and are much more willing to change job responsibilities as well as companies to find a position that better fits their lifestyle. Unfortunately, a job with a grocery retailer is generally not something these job seekers are predisposed to consider.

As the retail grocery business has consolidated into a few large, publicly-held companies, corporate social responsibility is having a greater impact on stock prices and senior management is much more attuned to activities that can impact a company’s reputation in the eyes of consumers.

Diversity, too, plays a significant role in hiring and promotion decisions (though it has long been a part of the produce industry). This emphasis is valuable in the respect that it gives a broader insight into an increasingly diverse consumer base, but it also gives companies the ability to tout the makeup of their staff, which can have a very positive impact on corporate public relation efforts.

As mentioned earlier, the ‘seasoned pro’ was most often a white male who had been in his position for a number of years. Experience, once a critical component of hiring decisions, has now been given less importance. Areas such as advanced educational degrees, gender and ethnic diversity, and international expertise are receiving greater attention in hiring decisions.

What is sacrificed is the experience of individuals who could offer deep insights in both the procurement and merchandising of fresh produce. While the cerebral aspects of the business are certainly addressed, the “art” of produce merchandising is becoming lost.

Additionally, the relational aspect of the produce industry is giving way to an unattached focus on numeric performance. “The number is the number” is a phrase almost getting worn out in the buyer/seller relationship. And finally, the frequency with which buyers move to different positions, and different companies, is accelerating more than ever before. While this certainly encourages a fresh look at the business, it also impacts longer-term strategic planning.

The produce industry is constantly changing and evolving. This has made a career in produce a fascinating challenge, and the ability to adapt to dynamic change has been one of the things that keeps the business so interesting. As we examine the changes in store formats, new products, new technologies, and retail consolidation, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the evolution of buyers and the individuals looking to fill these key positions.

Whether you’re looking at making a job change, looking to hire new people, or are just entering the job market–understanding the evolution of the produce industry’s various positions will help ensure success.


Bruce Peterson is the founder and president of Peterson Insights, Inc., a consulting company specializing in the complex challenges of the fresh food industry. Peterson began his career bagging groceries, and went on to work for several supermarket chains, including 17 years at Walmart Stores, Inc. He has owned and operated a wholesale produce company, and served as chief executive officer of both Naturipe Foods LLC and Bland Farms.