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Freshness is key for supermarket’s perishable department

The perishable department – bakery, seafood, meat, cheese, and more – has become a crucial retail battle ground for supermarkets as they compete to attract consumers shopping for fresh produce and other products. At Wegmans in Burlington, it’s a balancing act between shelf-life and profitability while also planning for the right variety, promoting products with new recipes and ingredients, and overseeing other operational concerns, said Jason Rowell, perishable area manager. A longtime employee, Rowell helped open the chain’s first New England location in Northborough, followed by Burlington. He spoke to Globe correspondent Cindy Atoji Keene about running the perishable department in a busy grocery like Wegmans.

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“Many shoppers don’t understand the scope and complexity of running a grocery store; I think the perception is that we are just stocking shelves all day. But so many factors play a role in our day-to-day business, whether it’s warehouse supply, transportation, organizing and displaying stock, or outside vendors. Right now citrus is in season, for example, but it’s been cold in Florida so oranges may not be ready and shortages might occur. If that’s the case, sometimes people are taken aback – seeing an empty shelf is not customary. When there’s a shortage like this, we always try to source it from somewhere else, or have signage and employees educate the customers. Our stores do very high volume, which means our products ‘turn over’ rapidly for freshness. In produce, for example, we offer about 700 different varieties of fruits and vegetables, including 140 or so organic choices. Bananas might be replenished every hour and a half; broccoli or cauliflower, every two hours, which explains why you’ll see these displays often being restocked by workers. We use the first-in-first-out philosophy and rely on lots of data to write accurate orders. The Burlington store is 135,000 square feet; the perishable departments that I oversee comprise about 50,000 square feet. There are no real ‘aisles’ in this area of the store; it’s designed more like a European open-air market. I couldn’t even say how many products we offer – more than 60,000 throughout the store, including several thousand in the perishable departments. This includes the specialty stuff, like dragon fruit or other tropical fruits from around the world, or $1,000 a pound truffles which are kept in a locked plexiglass box. At the deli,I love our charcuterie, with some of the best salamis and prosciuttos I’ve ever tried. My favorite is Jamon Iberico De Bellota. We only offer it hand-sliced because it’s straight off the bone. The joke at the store is that you can come to my office to look for me but rarely can you find me there – I’m always out on the sales floor, talking with employees and customers and working with the product. Even if I happen to be shopping at another grocery store, I can’t turn my mind off; I’m either looking for inspiration or just observing how they operate. And if an apple is out of place, I can’t help myself – I’ll put it back where it belongs.

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