Apprehensive, nervous, doubtful, and painful. These are all words that describe how team members feel when faced with the burden of writing orders in fresh departments—a task that is dreaded by nearly all who attempt to master building the perfect order. Replenishing products is by far the most important job duty of any leader in a retail fresh department. Every customer’s meal plan depends on the order…and it’s also the most challenging task on every order writer’s plate.
How order writing has changed over the years
During more than three decades of working in fresh perishable departments, I have seen and tested nearly every method of order writing possible. It’s been quite a journey—and one that I, too, dreaded at times.
I began my early years writing a product replenishment order on a scrap piece of paper or cardboard, then verbally called in the order to our warehouse order taker. As technology evoloved, the process graduated to handwriting the order and sending it in via fax. Many years later, the pre-printed paper order guide (a significant time-saver!) was introduced, where we wrote down how much of each product was in stock and manually entered the item number and quantity on the computer. Eventually, this system advanced to using the same pre-printed paper order guide, but with added scan barcodes. This enabled users to save time by scanning items. However, most stores invested in only a couple of scan guns which meant team members had to wait on other departments to start an order, and they still had to manually input the item quantity into the computer.
There are so many steps to traditional, manual inventory replenishment. You have to print the paper order guide; count how much physical inventory is on the floor and in the back room; review plans for promotions; evaluate retail shelf display capacity; and accurately forecast how much you’ll need before the next order. To keep products in stock, none of these steps can be skipped.
These ordering methods have much in common: they are all labor-intensive, time-consuming, primitive, and not much fun. Innovations in ordering, demand forecasting, and merchandising have improved tasks for center store, distribution centers, and procurement, but fresh teams have been left in the digital dust.
Still, technology should never replace the expertise of fresh teams. To address staffing shortages and market competition, retailers need to improve the employee experience with a cornerstone solution that keeps human insight centered while also enhancing workflows and training new team members. Rather than automating the order, leveraging new technology and artificial intelligence can empower the employee.
From sharpening pencils to sharpening skills
Late in my career, I was fortunate enough to review, test, and implement a new solution that changed the world of fresh department order writing for good! Afresh’s fresh-first approach, AI-powered recommendations, and easy-to-use iPad app were valuable from day one.
When I began testing the system in produce departments, I saw an immediate improvement in food waste and shrink levels. What I hadn’t expected was the almost immediate increase in incremental sales and a substantial reduction in labor, turning this once-dreaded task into a delightful one.
On a practical level, here’s what happened when I transitioned from a traditional paper ordering process to an AI-driven digital solution:
- We replaced clipboards and pencils with an easy-to-use iPad app that unified order writing, demand forecasting, inventorying, and space management
- Orders were completed in a fraction of the time it used to take, even for employees who were new to fresh or not confident with tech
- Team members with average (or worse) order writing skills started creating near-perfect orders, learning best practices and trends that took years for me to pick up
- Unloading trucks, organizing merchandise, and product turns took much less time
- Employees got to spend more time building eye-catching displays, strategizing for future events, and taking care of customers
- Shelves stayed fresh and full while far less went to waste in the back room
Take a look at the results Fresh Thyme achieved after just a few short months of using Afresh.
A system like this quickly becomes a huge morale booster for struggling team members — a built-in report card helps them understand which ordering decisions led to shrink or stockouts. Whether we needed to increase inventory levels for an upcoming holiday event or adjust for a major weather change, Afresh's AI helped team members make the right ordering decisions based on a multitude of factors that even the best order writers just can't keep track of. Boosting in-stock rates enabled a positive cycle of loyalty and performance: the customer shopping experience improved, which helped us achieve maximum sales potential. And with every order, it just got better and better.
It's time to trade in the old clipboard for fresh-first technology
Customers reap the benefits of new technology, too—no more tired, over-ripe tomatoes due to over-ordering! Displays stay well stocked with higher-quality product that gives shoppers the best possible eating experience and helps them reduce at-home food waste, too.
The return on investment from a proven winner like Afresh propels fresh departments into the future and has the potential to quickly exceed milestone financial goals. It's a solution every organization should consider as they optimize fresh department potentials to throw out the old-school clipboard and enjoy long-overdue improvements to perishable departments.
Using technology that’s built for perishable departments can change your business in months by enabling shrink reduction, incremental sales gains, and substantial labor savings. Plus, team members stick around because Afresh makes everyday job duties more enjoyable.
Scott Schuette is a retail veteran of more than 36 years and was most recently the vice president of produce and floral for Fresh Thyme Market. He has been named Produce Retailer of the Year, Specialty Food Retailer of the Year, and Retail Deli of the Year over the course of his decades of service to the fresh perishable industry.