I recently worked at a supermarket produce department for three months, an endeavor I’ve dubbed The Produce Project. On the first day of work, I got right into the action by tossing more than 50 pounds of ”sell-by” date casualties and watching some computer training videos.
Because the second day began in the afternoon, I missed the morning cull. Instead, I spent most of my time stocking the produce section for night shoppers. The store remained open until 11 p.m., so we tried to have everything mostly full when the last produce employee left at 7 or 8.
My boss Larry, who told me he has 32 years of experience in the biz, stressed the importance of having neat and brimming displays. The latter bit of shopping psychology interests me most–this idea that nobody wants to buy from the dregs. That’s why they restock for relatively few night shoppers. The produce would be better off in the store room, but the supermarket’s main focus is sales, not maximizing its products’ lifespan.
It’s a tradeoff. They’re willing to toss a bunch of loose mushrooms that sat out overnight in hopes of selling more by having a full-looking display. It’s not necessarily wrong, just interesting. They know they won’t sell all of them, but figure they might lose a sale with a half-full bin.
Also, the store’s worst-case scenario would be missing a sale because an item isn’t on the shelf. Supermarkets avoid that at all costs by routinely overordering, and, thus, knowingly creating food waste.
In between restocking, I watched another training video on the computer, which included a video game-like interactive section. They’d show a picture of a pear or head of lettuce with some bad spots and ask, “Would you leave this on the shelf?” The answers were obvious and the lesson learned was simple: throw out anything with a bad spot, bruise or bump.
Finally, I learned that there isn’t much waste when it comes to the store uniform. That’s because they make you buy your own supermarket logo shirt (to be worn with khakis). On the plus side, I now have a souvenir from my time in produce.