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The Great Oracle of Gelson's: A Q&A with John Savidan

As it was millennia ago, so it is today. While many map the moves of the Zeuses and Poseidons of our industry, the fact remains that the Chirons, the teachers behind greats like Heracles and Jason, continue to be the springs from which much of our industry’s knowledge flows. As one of Southern California’s leading Chirons since its inception in 1951, Gelson’s Markets has created a niche in the SoCal market that’s all its own—just ask anyone along the coast, from Santa Barbara to San Diego! But just how did the regional grocer accomplish this feat? My drachmas are on produce and, as such, I turn to John Savidan to see what wisdom I can glean about the local chain and its teachings.

John Savidan, Senior Director of Produce and Floral, Gelson’s MarketsAs Senior Director of Produce and Floral for Gelson’s Markets, John is more than just the mind behind the configuration of the grocer’s produce aisles. He is an oracle, a modern Pythia of produce. It is John who serves as the medium between growers and consumers. It is John and his team who have remastered what it means to promote and sell produce on the daily, adjusting and repurposing Gelson’s aisles to reflect consumers’ demands and growers’ wares. As a mere mortal, I’m not exactly sure how he does it. His passion for produce, however, is easily understandable and is something he has possessed for almost his entire life.

Like many in the industry, the seeds of John’s produce career were planted when he was young. In high school, he worked as a boxboy, bagging groceries at Ralphs Grocery. But fate had more in store for John than that, leading him to eventually receive a promotion into the produce department as Produce Department Manager. After 15 years with Ralphs, he then joined Bristol Farms, where he held a variety of positions, including Produce Manager, Produce Merchandiser, Buyer, and Produce Director. Today, he is a board member for the United Fresh Retail and Food Service Association and a member of the Fresh Produce and Floral Council.

While he only started with Gelson’s Markets at the turn of this year, John’s name has already become synonymous with Gelson’s and its bounty of fruit and veg goods. With these accomplishments at his back and even more to come, there seems to be no better produce monger’s mind to pick than John’s. In this Q&A, I do just that to see if I can uncover any prophecies pertaining to the future of produce and merchandising. Here’s what he could part with…


 

Kayla Webb: What is Gelson’s Markets’ general merchandising strategy for its produce aisles?

John Savidan: Our merchandising strategy for the Produce Division is first to wow our customers as they enter our departments. We do this by offering the very best seasonal fruits and vegetables, all meticulously hand stacked on our displays. We focus on every bit of detail imaginable when merchandising our departments. We are extremely diligent about quality and craftsmanship. It’s important to note that each and every item that goes out for display is inspected to ensure superior quality.

 

KW: What tips and tricks does Gelson’s Markets utilize to best merchandise the produce aisle?

JS: At Gelson’s, we pride ourselves on immaculate displays—nothing is dump-stocked, and detail is at its finest. Hand placing every item makes a world of difference when you are working with fresh fruits and vegetables, especially ones that are ripe and ready to eat. We do not take any shortcuts when it comes to the final presentation; we rotate and clean every display that is worked daily.

“This type of merchandising savvy doesn’t happen overnight as it really does take years of experience to master.”

- John Savidan, Senior Director of Produce and Floral, Gelson’s Markets

 

KW: Are there any tools you rely on when it comes to specific categories?

JS: Our merchants do a wonderful job at mass-merchandising the right seasonal items to create the wow factor. This type of merchandising savvy doesn’t happen overnight as it really does take years of experience to master. We have a great merchant team, with many years of service, that is dedicated to making our stores look the very best each and every day. When it comes to specific categories like berries, for example, we like to highlight destinations that bring in the traffic. Berries, as a destination, can create a gateway to different items in the store. They are ambassadors if you will, and as the category grows you rely on certain elements of varieties or brands to really pull that consumer through the section. Imagine the produce department designed with the utmost intention. We try and guide them through and use landmarks—you can even call them categories leaders or disruptors—to execute that vision. The goal is to be able to see the big picture and listen to what the consumer wants.

 

KW: How does Gelson’s Markets partner with produce companies when it comes to merchandising?

JS: We do not use merchandising equipment that you can find anywhere. We work diligently with a few select equipment suppliers to ensure that our merchandising fixtures are not the same as our direct competitors.

 

KW: What are some movements happening with the consumer that are affecting how Gelson’s merchandises its produce aisles?

JS: Organic fruits and vegetables continue to be a growing segment of the business. We have a lot of customers migrating toward organics, and it’s quite important that they are merchandised accordingly. We take great care in merchandising our organic offerings to give the customer the confidence that our products aren’t co-mingling with other conventional items.

 

While John only recently started at Gelson's Markets, he's already made an impact in the produce department

KW: How does Gelson’s approach digital merchandising versus brick-and-mortar merchandising?

JS: We are starting to get more involved with digital marketing and have been collaborating with our online services to better this area of the business. Our goal is to address the demographics of our region, and those consumers are changing, while at the same time many are remaining very much the same. Between boomers, millennials, and the up-and-coming generations, we see an opportunity to widen our scope. The consumer, across the board, is very visual. So, creating an experience for them, whether digital or in-store, is key—meaning that we are not closing off opportunities, but differentiating our merchandising real estate to create more engagement. Any given household will adapt their shopping behaviors depending upon the day, time available, weather, budget, schedule and more. I want us to have an answer for every challenge.


Where is the industry headed next? I’m not sure, but again my drachmas are on Gelson’s Markets and John. With merchandising know-how that even the Zeuses and Poseidons could learn from and a collective 90 years of developing an aptitude for produce between them, there’s no telling just where Gelson’s, and John, will take the industry. But one thing’s for certain: It will be legendary.