What makes a grocery store great? We know that the basics include a convenient location, good customer service and quality products. While every department plays its part in that equation, it is often the fresh departments, like meat and produce especially, that contribute to a store’s reputation in the ­community.

Food co-ops today are recognized for their enthusiasm regarding the foods they’re retailing, and competitors have taken note. As mainstream retailers have capitalized on the appeal of local foods and super-fresh ingredients for consumers, the competition for repeat customers is fierce. The stores that do the best job at telling the authentic story of their producers are winning the hearts, minds and loyalty of their customers.

Being able to convey the excitement for sustainable local agriculture and educating people about healthy eating is only one part of the job. To achieve department excellence requires thought and planning. Channeling passion for food through excellent merchandising and efficient systems is critical to a food co-op’s ability to tell the story of where food comes from. Highlighting important community connections can make your store a shopping destination. Being able to deliver on that message is all about how departments are organized behind the scenes.

mark-mulcahy-quoteMark Mulcahy, produce department management and training consultant, said that produce is often the “gateway” department for customers interested in local and organic food. For that reason, produce has continued to grow as a category, and 38 percent of all organic sales are for produce (currently number one), even during the recession. Even though food co-ops are often known for their produce departments, Mulcahy cautions against being too complacent about their draw. He said people have higher expectations of co-op produce departments that go beyond the mere selling of local and organic products. “People want to feel you are engaging with them. They want full service no matter the size of your department, and they want your expertise,” he said.

Being able to do that involves a paradigm shift in how department staff think about their jobs. For example, he said that it’s not enough for buyers to be simply ordering food and for produce handlers to be shelf stockers. “Our job is to help people decide what’s for dinner,” Mulcahy said. “Retailers need to drive sales via what the customer wants.”

In addition to providing great customer service, buyers need to be proactive making deals with warehouses and producers. Mulcahy cited as an example selling avocados 5 for $5 rather than selling them for $1.29 each. By pushing volume on popular items, like avocados, and marketing them through guacamole sampling and recipes, produce departments can raise sales while promoting value to their customers.

Mulcahy also encourages produce department managers to work more assertively with their wholesalers on getting the deals they need to satisfy customers and get a good price point. “Sometimes we have this story made up in our minds that the price on the order sheet is firm, or that by asking for a different price we are disrespecting producers, but often it turns out that they want the same things we do, which is to sell more in volume.” He suggests creating a strategy based on seasons, weather, and holiday eating that can allow the produce department to make deals that would allow it to sell 40 cases versus 10 cases. “Everyone gets more cash in their pocket and customers get a great deal,” he said.

Mulcahy said that part of shifting away from “ordering” food, rather than buying it, is to engage in a spirit of play regarding the work to do it. He said: ask questions, negotiate with wholesalers, visit producers, look at ways to effectively merchandise, offer good sales, and engage with customers, because those are the really the fun parts of the job. Being creative with food and building those alliances is the soul of food co-op retailing.

Pete Hodgson is a meat and seafood consultant who is also keen on promotional programs with an educational component. It makes the store as a whole a destination. He encourages meat managers to cooperate with producers on sampling and sales items, as well as promoting the department through store flyers and recipes. “You need to have a signature item, something people are looking for that makes it exciting to shop in your department,” Hodgson said.

pete-hodgson-quoteHodgson said that people are especially eager to have fresh, house-made sausages without preservatives and nitrates, marinated meats that are oven-ready, and convenience cuts for making fajitas, stir fry and stews. Additionally, customers appreciate when meat is cut in-house from the whole animal and ground on premises. It’s that transparency and respect for the product that sets a retailer apart. Smart retailers offer value-added products to their customers because they can really make or break whether a shopper is going to be loyal or not.

Hodgson believes that if the co-op has everything a customer needs, especially in the meat department, they’ll shop all departments. “For example, holidays often bring in new foot traffic, but if someone is prevented from getting what they want, they go to another store,” Hodgson said. That’s why he thinks it’s imperative to focus on offering value-added products and promoting the local meat advantage.

“A lot of co-ops have great products, but they may not do a lot of in-store promotion that can maximize their opportunity to build sales,” he said. Additionally, even though the majority of people eat meat, they often don’t know how to cook it, or feel intimidated by it. This is where co-op staff can help foster a strong educational niche by being a food resource. Building sales is all about providing people information on how prepare meats, offering recipes, and effectively merchandising through display and signage.

Both Hodgson and Mulcahy work with store teams on how to plan, strategize, and promote departments by ensuring good communication and systems that give people the tools for empowerment and accountability. “We need to match our bright clean stores with a knowledgeable staff,” Mulcahy said.

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