Walmart campaign aims at improving produce quality and sales

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The leafy lettuce seemed fresh. Mary Ann Schmieder of Bethel Park checked it over carefully because she has been disappointed before. "I've bought them in grocery stores and they were already pink and green," she said.

Walmart, which operates the West Mifflin store where she was shopping, wants to take no chances that customers will be disappointed in its produce.

The Bentonville, Ark., retailer earlier this year announced it was putting 70,000 associates through a produce training program, including giving them quality guides to help identify the important characteristics. Walmart also has instituted independent weekly checks in more than 3,400 stores and hired produce experts to work with its suppliers.

Last month, Bill Simon, president and CEO of Walmart U.S., told analysts on a quarterly earnings conference call the bet was paying off. "Our produce business also continued to gain momentum," he said, noting a sales gain over the same period last year in stores open at least a year.

Unlike the pre-packaged goods found in the center of stores, the colorful piles of green peppers, tomatoes, oranges, peaches, green onions and potatoes around the perimeter of groceries resist standardization and add an element of risk -- both for the customer and the store.

Shoppers are poking and prodding to try to avoid the moldy raspberries and the overripe bananas, while retailers who prove themselves reliable in this department can set themselves apart from every other merchant on the block who has a shelf of the same canned soups, the same boxed cereals and bagged loaves of breads.

As the "buy local" trend and the growth in farmers markets influences how people think about produce, the nation's largest food purveyors have felt the pressure to improve quality even as they use their extensive distribution systems to keep prices down.

In a July conference call with analysts, Minnesota-based grocery distributor Supervalu president and CEO Sam K. Duncan said the company had continued to see a drop in sales but things were improving. In the Save-A-Lot grocery chain, Mr. Duncan said he thinks better produce is already starting to help.

"We have recently standardized the quality specs of the produce across the network and increased the shelf life of many items by working directly with growers," he said. Supervalu, too, is retraining its store employees on best practices.

Even the display standards are being raised. Known for minimalist fixtures, the company has invested in new tables to better show off its bananas. "I can't explain to you how much better it is ... when you're selling bananas off of euro tables instead of boxes," Mr. Duncan said.

The West Mifflin Walmart expanded its produce department from 10,000 square feet to 12,000 square feet a year ago, including doubling the number of refrigerated cases. The extra space has meant more room for things such as kale, avocados and the most recent addition, okra.

A company spokeswoman said changes throughout the distribution system have put Walmart more directly in touch with farmers -- the retailer says it's committed to doubling its sales of locally grown produce by December 2015 -- and decreased the days between the field and the store by a day.

At the store in West Mifflin, signage indicated the cabbages were grown in the U.S., the rutabagas came from Canada and the serrano peppers from Mexico. Bicolor corn, yellow squash and green onions came from Wiers Farm in Willard, Ohio, something made obvious by the marked crates that included the dates the produce had been packed.

An employee stood sorting through a box of jalapeno peppers that had been out awhile, laying the best ones on top of the new pile of peppers that she was bringing in. Before the latest initiative, associates didn't have as much input on whether something was too bruised to keep on a display.

"Empowering our associates with the tools to guarantee our produce quality is a critical component to our 100 percent money-back guarantee, said Jack Sinclair, executive vice president of the food business for Walmart U.S., in a June release. The push, which has been backed by advertising, includes a guarantee that customers can get their money refunded even without bringing back the spoiled produce.

That guarantee has generated some skepticism, as has Walmart's overall effort to raise its reputation in selling fruits and vegetables. On Twitter, the company's helpful tips -- such as, "Produce #tip from the pros: @SarahJaneRD says for the most delicious #strawberries, store them in the fridge in a paper bag. #WMTFresh" -- mingle with less positive comments: "Walmart produce successfully [lets] me down every time."

The West Mifflin produce department had a constant flow of customers on an early Thursday afternoon as shoppers said they balance convenience, price and selection to decide where to buy their tomatoes and cilantro.

Indira Nepal of Brentwood likes shopping in the Strip District for produce -- "They have good prices" -- but she can't always go that far. Picking through the mangoes at Walmart, she said, "The quality's not that bad; it's a little bit expensive."

"In produce, I still think Giant Eagle is still better, but it's a lot more expensive," said Gloria Fritz of Whitehall, who easily reeled off price comparisons for the two retailers, but said she was glad to see Walmart stepping up its game.

"The cabbages look a lot better."

food - businessnews

Teresa F. Lindeman: tlindeman@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-2018.


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