By now it’s become all-too-familiar. National chains and conventional grocery competitors tout their local food selection to gain market share. Instead of actually sustaining relationships with local producers, a lot of these operations are creating a “local” mirage promoted by slick signage and the strategic placement in their stores of a few local items. To the savvy consumer it’s disappointing, and to the average person it’s confusing.
Food co-ops have an opportunity to demonstrate authenticity, not only through their own marketing, but because co-op values compel them to cultivate meaningful relationships that serve a more just and sustainable food system. It happens every day in the aisles and behind the scenes at scores of food co-ops. “Local is the hottest trend right now,” said Pete Hodgson, meat and seafood consultant, “When it pertains to food co-ops, the number one priority is to bring in those local products.” He notes there are a lot of competitors “jumping on the bandwagon.”
And while we’re on the topic of systems, that means that cooperatives also invest in their own internal operational systems that allow them to deliver on the promise of being the real deal.
“Be aggressive with your communications,” advised Hodgson, even if every last thing in your case is local, if it’s not well-signed or talked up, nobody is going to know the difference. Worse, people might not see the value proposition of the products and think that the co-op just charges high prices. He said that the way to compete against the proliferation of “pretend” local and high price image is to wage your own local campaign based on consumer education, service, and high quality product delivery. Sourcing clean local products, maintaining an excellent relationship with the producers and strong messaging around local products is key to creating consumer trust.
“It’s so important that staff give information, brochures, recipes and offer cooking demos,” he said. Hodgson also said that it’s especially important to provide internal support to meat departments. “If they are knowledgeable and can articulate information about the products, sourcing, how to cook it, why it’s better, that’s so valuable to the co-op,” he said.
Hodgson believes investing in customer service training and paying people good wages pays off in the short term and long run. Hodgson said sometimes he hears from stores having trouble keeping staff in the meat department, and he thinks it is important for operations to make it priority to retain knowledgeable and friendly staff. It’s an important relationship to cultivate in order for the co-op to demonstrate its authenticity and build its reputation beyond store doors. “You want to have knowledgeable people to educate customers,” he said. Strong word-of-mouth advertising is especially critical for a relationship-intensive business like retail food selling.
In order for fresh and grocery departments to grow, advertising and local food demos are critical. Getting people to taste the difference in quality goes a long way. “You’ve got to talk up the product,” Hodgson said. As well as give people the opportunity to meet the producers. “Get the farmer into the store,” he said, take the business relationships you have established and extend them out to the customer.
One thing that also differentiates co-ops is that buyers go out to visit the farms and see how the animals are being raised. They can stand behind the products they sell. So often competitors do not take that step, relying on national distributors to do the sourcing, and offering products to consumers with nebulous information about its origins. One of the cooperative values is transparency, and this is something that should be widely explained and promoted to customers. “Our primary goal as co-op retailers is to help our members and customers. Co-ops also actively want to give local farmers an avenue to sell their products. All of these people help each other,” Hodgson said.
Hodgson is also a fan of continual improvement. Even well-established meat departments can always do things to merchandise better, bring in new products, and educate more people. “You can always be working on merchandising,” Hodgson said, especially around the seasons and specific holidays when people are seeking out special, or local products.
Mel Braverman is an operational and financial improvement consultant, and he thinks that natural food co-op retailers will need to cast an even more critical eye on their internal systems. Especially as they face more intense competition. Competitive pressure means downward pressure on margins. To continue to be sustainable, stores have to more intentionally manage their margins and seek out the best and most efficient ways to manage labor and other expenses. Braverman noted that so often what stores in crisis do is slash costs and reign in spending, when what they need to do is invest wisely in systems that enhance profitability and productivity.
Number one on his list of priorities to invest in is customer service training that focuses staff on building customer relationships. “You want people who validate people’s purchases at the co-op, who demonstrate to customers that when they buy at the co-op their purchases do good things,” Braverman said. This includes staff having a good understanding of the co-op’s goals and their role in helping achieve them.
Braverman also thinks adapting and integrating best-practices in operations is critical to gaining operational efficiency—something that can help meet labor goals and maintain profitability. “A valid system is one that is documented,” Braverman said. For example every department should have a standard operating manual, as well as opportunities for learning that include hands-on experience, flow charts and pictures, because not everyone learns the same way.
Once a system is documented, it should also be regularly critiqued or audited with the goal of improvement. Getting feedback from people allows leaders to hear what’s working and what’s not working, but also to build important relationships with staff based on continual improvement. “Most things come from leadership, and continuous improvement comes from leaders who want to improve.”
For both Braverman and Hodgson, promoting the values of local agriculture, economies and cooperatives means always continuing to cultivate people within good operational systems. “When you have systems established or your business is successful, that is not a time to coast. When you are successful is when you have your greatest opportunity to improve because you have the resources to do it,” Braverman said.