Behind the scenes in the merchandising department

Many of you out there recognize me as the gal that’s been working in Weaver Street Market’s produce departments for over a decade, first in our Carrboro store and then in our Hillsborough location. Maybe I cut you a slice of my favorite apple (or one of my favorites—it’s so hard to choose!), the variety called Jazz, or told you how to prepare and cook fennel, or how to peel a butternut squash. You might have seen me deep in a bin of Carolyn_store_tomatoeswatermelons, handing them one by one to another member of the produce team. I love produce, and I love my job. This past winter I was given the opportunity to take it to the next level as the produce, meat, and seafood merchandiser. I packed up my apron and produce knife and headed over to our admin offices in West Hillsborough to start my first ever desk job!

What is a merchandiser, you ask? Good question, as I am still learning myself. In essence, we are the head buyers for our departments. We decide what (and what not) the co-op is going to stock on its shelves, what price it will be, and what items will be on sale each week. Carolyn_atHerDeskWe manage vendor relations, and research and vet new vendors to continue improving our product selection. Sound easy? It’s not! It’s actually surprisingly difficult and complex. Because of the co-op’s high standards and broad customer base, it often feels like I’m juggling many opposing needs. On one hand I strive to have the highest quality and the most socially and environmentally responsible products and to pay the producers the best price for those products. On the other hand I’m trying to bring our customers the best possible deals. Some days it all falls into place. Other days are met with much gnashing of teeth.

Carolyn_VisitingFisheryTankAfter so many years in a position where I felt fairly confident, I have suddenly been thrust into a position in which I am a little uncertain, a little wet behind the ears. It’s like being a senior in high school and then going off to college as a freshman. Everything is new and a little daunting, but there is great opportunity for personal growth. I am learning so much about the “back end” of running Weaver Street, and what it takes to produce and market all of the products that we carry. I have learned more than I thought I could know about shrimping, the seasons of the Mexican avocado, and the raising of pasture-raised beef.

The most rewarding part of my job is working with small farmers and producers, from Harkers Island, North Carolina, to Anchorage, Alaska. I feel like I am making a real impact on their lives by purchasing from them, as opposed to buying from huge distributors who could take us or leave us with no adverse effects. Just last week I spoke with a small-scale fisherman in Alaska via satellite phone. It was an exciting change from dealing with a broker in an office to speaking with the guy who actually caught the fish that we are going to sell. From April through August, I talk to Russ Vollmer from Vollmer Farm at least once a week about the berries we are purchasing from them. We talk about the challenges of managing a farm staff, how the weather is affecting the crop, and new varieties he is excited to try. When we buy from these small producers, we are making a commitment to support not only their businesses, but their livelihoods.

The thing I miss most about working in the store is my special customer interactions. There were the customers I knew, and those whom I recognized by their preferred produce purchases, and those whose children I saw grow up, and those who became friends over time. I miss having the opportunity to give face-to-face customer service. Because that’s what Weaver Street is all about. We may not be as cheap as Walmart, or as flashy as Whole Foods. But we comprise a group of people who truly care about their jobs, their community, and each other.