The 46 years that I spent at Kroger not only helped me build my own produce retail foundation, but allowed me to witness the tremendous amount of growth the segment has experienced and the great strides that technology has allowed us to make. In Part 1 of this series, I addressed how technology has impacted the way we order product, as well as pricing, data mining capabilities, and product availability. In this next section, we drill down into a few other areas of growth. So, kick your feet up, and let’s dig in.
The first retail produce department that I worked in had about 96 linear feet of refrigerated wall case, an in-line dry potato, onion, and specialty set, a fiberglass banana table, as well as two other promotional fiberglass tables. The wall case was lit by normal fluorescent lights from the overhead portion of the case. Shipping containers would be used to display seasonal items, such as strawberries, center of the aisle.
Today, with the added products that retailers offer, the average department requires a larger footprint within the store and many more linear feet of refrigerated space. Improved refrigeration technology has allowed retailers to go up with products, using multi-deck cases to display them. As refrigerated multi-deck cases and retrofit case conversion kits began coming into vogue in the early 1990s, there were many issues or opportunities that had to be addressed, such as maintaining consistent and even temperatures within the cases was a challenge. Today, with improved technology, retailers can easily maintain consistent temps throughout their cases, which provides a fresher product to their customer and helps to prevent shrink for their departments.
Those center of the aisle strawberry displays, built on original shipping containers, have all but disappeared and have been replaced with refrigerated mobile merchandising units that can be easily relocated within a department to support seasonality or promotional activity. Mobile refrigerated cases are great for berries, grapes, cut fruit, party trays, and value-added, as well as many other uses. They are great fixtures for holding highly-perishable items at the right temperature to extend shelf-life and provide the customer with a great experience with their purchase.
Displaying green, leafy products on ice beds to keep the product cold and fresh was pretty much the norm in the past and has slowly evolved with the development of misting systems that spray the same type of items with cold water on a scheduled repetition throughout the day by use of timers. These systems have helped to maintain freshness and minimize shrink.
Lighting in the 70s was pretty much just the ambient lighting in the stores produced by rows of fluorescent lighting attached to the ceiling in addition to the fluorescent lighting in the overhead portion of the wall refrigerated cases. Today, through the improvement of technology, LED lighting has been developed that allows for movable track lighting to accentuate the product. Light bulbs have been designed to produce less heat than they did in years past to avoid damaging the products they are highlighting.
Bulk vs. Package
In the early 1970s, retailers were still overwrapping much of their produce at store level in most cases. By the end of the 1970s, larger retailers had begun moving more towards selling much of their produce bulk vs. package so that the customer could select the amount and items they wanted. This trend has grown and continues today. Now, items that are more appropriately suited to be sold in package arrive to retail stores already in the package, ready for display, thanks to the improvement of packaging techniques and the advent of breathable films that allow for the proper respiration rate for the items within the package, maximizing product freshness and shelf-life. Clamshells are another example of how technology in packaging has changed what the retailer does. Retailers used to spend quite a bit of labor touching products like strawberries by hand, and packed them in pint and quart tills. Today, they are display-ready in see through clamshells.
Marketing for most major retailers has evolved from running weekly newspaper ads, complemented by a weekly circular mailed to homes within a trade area, to today, where more and more marketing dollars have moved to digital marketing and the utilization of retailer apps to drive customers to partake in loyalty offerings, special ad events, and retailer and supplier funded coupons. Today’s customers depend a lot less on print media to find out what’s in the ad and more so on their smartphones for weekly ad items, to download coupons, and to take advantage of all sorts of other marketing and promotional opportunities. This capability is only available due to the advancement of technology in the past few years, but is being received well by customers of all age groups.
We have covered many of the major changes that have taken place in the retail produce department over the past 46 years because of technological improvements, but we certainly have not covered them all. If you were to look at each step in the food chain, from farm-to-fork, the list of technological advancements would continue to grow at a similar rate as was seen in produce.
I was not able to predict the future when I began my career—as to all the many technological changes that were in store—and still can’t today. But, I can, with confidence, predict that the changes and advancements in technology that impact the retail produce department will not be any less than what was experienced during my career.
Dan Johnson has 46 years of experience in the retail grocery business, with tenure in Merchandising/Marketing and Operations, as well as 12 years as the Corporate Director of Produce and Floral Merchandising, Sales and Marketing, and as Corporate Director of Produce Procurement for The Kroger Co. based in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Kroger Produce and Floral Merchandising team was responsible for the sales of both produce and floral for the largest traditional supermarket chain in the U.S. The Kroger Co. is one of the largest retail florists in the world.
Dan has been active in the produce industry, serving on the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) Board of Directors 2007–2010 and 2011–2014. He was Chairman of the PMA Fresh Summit Expo in 2012, is currently a member of the PMA Membership Committee, and has previously served as Chairman of the PMA Membership Committee, served on the PMA Retail Board and the PMA Produce Electronic Identification Board, as well as the PMA Technology Committee, etc. Dan currently serves on the Executive Committee of the Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH), owns Dan Johnson Insights, LLC, and consults within the produce and grocery industry.