I always wonder what the average shopper thinks of those small, annoying labels on most of the fresh fruit in the produce department. You know the ones I mean. If you’re lucky, they can easily be removed from your Fuji apples (I use a serrated knife to lift one edge). But, it’s nearly impossible to get them off a nectarine, pluot or eggplant without ripping the skin.
Well, here is a bit of history. Back in the 1960s, there were only about 65 different items sold in the produce department. In the 1970s, that number grew to almost 200. By the 1980s, it was over 300. And today, the average produce department will probably handle more than 600 different items at any one time.
Many years ago, the people who ran supermarket produce departments figured out it was getting harder and harder to educate their staff and cashiers on what every item was. They had to come up with an easy, universal and effective way to identify products so they would be rung up at the correct price. And, they were also sensitive to how valuable the shopper’s time is, so they wanted it to be quick to use.
Enter PLU numbers. PLU stands for Price Look Up. This unique computerized numbering system – applied to everything from apples to zucchini – allows the cashier to enter the 4-digit number and the cash register will automatically display what the product is and its price (either by the pound or by the each).
You may notice that sometimes that 4-digit number is prefaced by a “9” – that means the product has been grown organically.
Because the PLU system helps ensure that produce prices are charged correctly, it actually encourages your supermarket to offer a wider variety of products in their produce department. Retailers can rest assured that they won’t lose money because product is not rung up correctly.
Supermarkets are always looking for ways to be more efficient in managing their costs, so this was a great invention, and frankly, it encouraged innovation and new product introductions.
Many of us now have access to self-checkout lanes in our supermarkets. I enjoy scanning my own items occasionally, and have seen first-hand how important those PLU numbers are.
So, maybe next time you pick up a fruit or veggie adorned with that little sticker, you won’t find it quite so annoying!
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