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Keeping a (S)Harp Mind - Q&A with Mike Roberts



Mike Roberts, Director of Produce Operations, Harps Food Stores Inc.Change is something that is standard in our industry. Whether it is due to technology, weather, growing practices, markets, or innovations—our business is as dynamic as they come. At the retail level, it is easy to see the evolution as fresh takes center stage, and the industry competes within a growing number of store formats and consumer buying behaviors. One of those retail execs keeping his finger on the pulse of the consumer experience is Mike Roberts, Director of Produce Operations, Harps Food Stores Inc. Mike has seen the produce landscape evolve during his nearly 30 years in the industry. The company currently has upward of 90 stores, with a fresh concept that never sits still for long. With such a fruitful tenure in the industry, Mike enjoys looking back as much as he enjoys looking forward.


1.How have you seen merchandising change and evolve during your time at Harps?

Well, I might date myself here. Having started in the business in 1988, I have seen a ton of changes. Probably the biggest change has been in fixtures; going from flat racks to multi-deck cases or vertical merchandising was a big change, as well as going from slant backs or euro tables to orchard bin fixtures. This has totally changed the way we merchandise departments these days. These changes were necessary to incorporate new items that customers want every day, reduce shrink, and to improve the overall look of the department.


2. What are a few of your best practices when it comes to merchandising your produce department?

Traffic flow is always of huge importance. We want to have good traffic flow and easy movement about the department for our customers, but we also want to make sure they see the whole department, so we sometimes create pinch points—areas in the produce department merchandised to keep customers in the department longer—to help the consumer see all we have to offer.


3. In terms of the product mix, how have you seen that concept evolve in current years?

The variety that produce departments offer today is incredible—watermelons and strawberries available year-round along with the vast assortment of salad mixes and grab-and-go items. It seems like just yesterday we only had 300 items available, and now we have well over anywhere between 800 to upwards of 1,200 items or more available in our produce departments.


4. As we get into the new year, what are some of the key items you love to keep stocked for your shoppers?

Salads and cut fruit are a huge deal for the new year. Along with all the other staples like greens and cabbage, it gets really fun now with Chilean soft fruit and blueberries and Florida strawberries!


5. What do you believe are some of the key components in growing and bringing more value to your produce department consumer relationships?

I think you have to have items that are value-added for today’s busy consumer, and offer a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Today’s consumer wants a choice, and that choice can change weekly. I also think you have to educate and inform them about where your products are from and how they are grown. I think cause marketing will continue to grow because consumers feel better about shopping with you if they know you are also helping kids, the less fortunate, and other good causes.

It is funny to think that probably, just in the time that we have created this piece, Mike has changed his mind, seen something different, found something new. But, hey, we are in the produce industry, right? Change is in our blood.