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Fresh Perspectives with Country Grocer’s Rob Johnson

In this ongoing series, Canadian Grocer catches up with produce leaders from across the country

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Fresh Perspectives is an ongoing series from Canadian Grocer in partnership with the Canadian Produce Marketing Association (CPMA), where we check in with produce leaders from across the country to find out how consumer behaviours are changing, what the biggest challenges are for produce and what the outlook is for this critical department. For this edition we talk to Rob Johnson, produce operations manager at B.C.’s Country Grocer. Here are edited excerpts from our interview:

What changes have you noticed in terms of shopper behaviour in recent months?
I’ve noticed that our shoppers want more bagged products. They’re more inclined to pick up a bag of apples quickly instead of rooting through [a display] of product that other people may have touched. I think it’s all psychological because there’s no contamination with the fruit; it’s just something people are thinking about. They [shoppers] also want a clean department, full displays [and] to be able to social distance while shopping. They also want to buy more local produce and support our farmers.

Speaking of local, will it play a more important role in your offer going forward?
I have always supported all of our B.C. growers and Canadian suppliers. Local produce is what our customers want to buy and I have every local product that is available daily, and always have B.C. produce [featured] in our ad flyers.

Produce is not an easy category, but what would you say are some of the big challenges facing this department? 
Shortage of produce, trucking, staffing of the produce departments, lack of workers on our farms harvesting—and a lot of these issues are ongoing. I’m doing all I can to keep our produce departments full, and without all of my suppliers, I could not do this. I’ve been doing this for more than 40 years and have developed a really good working relationship with my suppliers over the years.

With staffing, it has been an issue [particularly at the beginning of the pandemic] with some of our employees not wanting to come to work and we understood and gave them the opportunity to do that. Overall, our staff has been doing a great job in looking after our customers and keeping them safe. We also have a great team in every store helping our staff with all concerns while working [during] COVID-19.

What makes for an effective produce merchandising strategy?
It all comes down to having the best quality product and really highlighting the seasonal produce. Our stores and our produce departments are very well merchandised and I have worked really hard with the [team] over the years to be able to that. But giving our customers what they want, and what they count on us to have, in our departments daily is really important.

What have you found to be the most effective way to minimize shrink?
Shrink is an ongoing issue in any produce department, but we manage it by buying the freshest produce we can possibly buy. If you keep your displays full and fresh it will sell faster. Most stores get deliveries daily so we maintain stock control and buy only what we need for our daily sales.

How do you assure customers of the safety of items in the produce department?
With all the new rules on the accountability for any produce coming out of the U.S. and the world, there is more controlled safety of the produce being offered to our customers. We’re also a CanadaGAP-certified company with the Government of Canada, and we comply with all the rules and regulations for having safe produce in our departments.

How would you describe the outlook for produce?
I know the produce sales in our stores and across Canada will be increasing and getting stronger with our customers wanting to eat more healthy, and also eating more at home. With the continued support for local produce, I know that our growers across Canada will also have a better future. We need to support the farmers and make sure they get what they need so they can keep growing for us next year and the years to come.

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