If you’re trying to win with fresh, produce needs to be a destination — but you’d better mind the gap — your perception of quality may not match your customers’ experience.

Several years ago I was part of group that drove from L.A. to San Francisco visiting leading produce growers. Along the way, we stopped at every supermarket we saw. Halfway up the coast, we realized we weren’t seeing much difference between the produce departments. All were merchandised well, had a good assortment of products and featured similar prices, and all the retailers emphasized that their produce department was one of the ways they set their stores apart from the competition.

Customers in the area, however, had a more discerning view. They told us that the produce wasn’t the same in all of the stores — they said some store’s fruits and vegetables tasted better and lasted longer than others. The customers knew that different stores delivered different quality.

So the message is: Be careful, appearances can be deceiving. Today, U.S. produce departments are looking pretty good for the most part, but upon closer inspection only some are selling better quality merchandise, and many are not the destination department senior management wants them to be.

How do you find out if your produce execution is strong enough to set your stores apart? Start by asking your customers and store-level employees. Your customers are continually doing market research as they shop other stores, and your store employees may be aware of the situation even if management isn’t (plus, they can often shed light on the reasons why).

Don’t take that colorful display at face value. Find out whether your produce really delivers a fresh destination. Who will you ask? And what will you do with what you learn?

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