Interview with Jerry Suter, VP of Fresh Operations Specialists, Meijer
By Shari Steinbach, MS RDN, RDBA Contributing Editor
The perimeter of the store is quickly becoming a point of differentiation for supermarkets and understanding how fresh departments operate is key for retail dietitians who want to engage this area of the store in health and wellness initiatives. The following interview with Jerry Suter, VP of Fresh Operations Specialists at Meijer provides key insights for connecting with these departments.
What are the key responsibilities of your function?
Teaching, training and educating fresh team members at the store level to ensure programs and processes are executed correctly and properly aligned with corporate initiatives. I also understand the needs of the merchants and provide a voice of reason before store execution.
What are the top three skills needed to be successful in retail from your perspective?
- Obtaining great communication skills and putting them into practice is essential.
- Continual learning. The retail industry changes quickly and we must keep educating ourselves to stay in the game.
- Building successful relationships internally and externally is what it’s all about!
What factors are most important to you in strategic partnerships? Are they different between internal and external partnerships?
You must partner with retail industry organizations to stay in tune with cutting edge programs. The Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association are two good examples for me. It’s also important to build trusting partnerships with suppliers. I want a supplier who shares the worry about my business as well as theirs – we are in this together. I also want partners who I can trust to follow through in a timely manner. To me, speed is credibility whether it’s an internal or external partner.
What keeps you up at night?
My biggest worry by far is food safety issues! We do so many things with food the potential for error is great. We must provide transparency with our procedures and leave nothing to chance.
What factors do you consider when determining if a product on the shelf is doing well? Should get more facings? Should be pulled from the assortment?
I look at products and determine if they are earning their right to be on the shelf in terms of sales dollars, penetration and what may go along with that product. For instance, a store I once worked in had a hoagie sandwich roll that was only selling $60 a week, however, the small business member buying that roll was linked to a quarter million dollars of business. I try to always look at the bigger picture before pulling a product. Also, in fresh I need to look at the shrink for a product and determine if it is in the right space. A good buyer will know their case and how many dollars are being earned. If it is not at earning threshold something will need to be replaced.
How do you differentiate between a fad and a trend when deciding on new products to carry or products to feature more prominently?
It could be both and we have to determine consumer need. Sugar free bakery items seemed to be a fad for a while with many products available. It is not as strong now but we still carry some of these items to meet shopper requests.
What financials do you look at and use most frequently in your role?
I look at sales, margin, markdowns and throwaways – tracking products all the way through. I also look at the labor to execute properly at store level.
What is your educational and work background?
Although I attended some college courses my main supermarket education has come from the many positions I have held in retail over the years. I’ve done hourly manufacturing, training and development, human resources, receiving/shipping, buying/merchandising, store level selling, warehouse management and corporate leadership. This has helped me to understand the total supermarket business. My roles were at Kroger, A&P, Sam’s Club and now Meijer.
What do retail RDs need to understand about your role to be an effective partner?
My job as a leader in the fresh departments is that of a liaison between merchandising and operations, and ultimately to the customer. Retail dietitians definitely have a role with helping the fresh department team members effectively communicate solutions and provide guidance to shoppers. For example, if there is a new rotisserie chicken program, how can we provide solutions at the service touch points such as how to pair the chicken with other fresh offerings for easy, healthful meals. Knowledgeable employees are more approachable and engaged and educational selling expertise that focuses on prepared foods, produce and meat/seafood can help fresh operations teams provide customer guidance with product selection and usage.