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Co+op Collaboration at CCMA

By June Wiaz, Board Director

Early this past summer, managers, staff and directors from food co-ops across the country gathered in lovely, however humid, Bloomington, Indiana to attend this year's meeting of the Consumer Cooperatives Management Association (CCMA). Joshua Youngblood, New Leaf Market’s Board of Directors President, and I were grateful to attend.

We awoke in Bloomington a bit bleary-eyed. Toothpicks propped open eyelids that had only been allowed to shut at 3:00am after making the dark, winding drive through patches of fog en route from the Indianapolis airport the night before after a long-delayed flight. (But at least we went to the Bloomington in the correct U.S. state. Another group of attendees also arrived late to our same hotel in the middle of the night because they’d flown to Bloomington, Illinois!)

After an inspiring plenary session, it was clear that the effort was going to be worthwhile. The opening speaker, author Bruce Philp, spoke about “branding.” “A brand is no longer what it says; it’s what it does,” Philp said. He then went on to discuss “consumerism,” which he defined as the act of buying things, to be seen having them, as a status.

Marketing is now much more aggressive than it was, say, a couple of hundred years ago, Philp asserted, because the market offers a “riot of choice,” AND there are so many different types of media. Marketing now is like a never-ending election campaign. Early in our democracy, conformity was more the norm. Now conformity is obsolete. That’s why brands matter: because they mean choice, and choice empowers consumers, according to Philp, who also made the point that our memories for fact are short, but memories for “narrative” are long. Consumers are buying the seller, not the product. He offered five pieces of advice for every seller:

  1. Engage the consumers
  2. Own your brand
  3. Know who you are
  4. Do a million things
  5. Listen in real time (with Twitter, Google trend search, 4 Square)

A second speaker, author Michael Sansolo who is also vice president of the Food Marketing Institute, asked conference attendees to consider what makes their respective stores special. It’s the PEOPLE, he emphatically stated. Stores have to do things that make shoppers feel welcomed and delighted to be in the store. And it’s okay to copy successful models from similar venues. The author quoted the novel Anna Karinina, “All happy families are the same. All unhappy families are unhappy in their own way," a citation meant to get us thinking about why people are NOT shopping at our respective stores.

“It’s the hard that makes us good,” he reminded the audience.

Sansolo provided some food for thought, or perhaps “thought for food” such as the most recent trends in food shopping:

  • Fewer trips/less spending
  • Coupons, discounts, deals
  • Private label
  • Eating at home

Sansolo also noted that the shopper comes into the store thinking about: family (health), time (convenience), and personal care (still want a bit of pampering which is why women are still getting manicures even in bad economy). And the top 10 food trends: Sushi, sliders, bacon, cupcakes, coffees/teas, artisanal foods, super fruits, gourmet burgers, whole grains, and truffle oil.

“Show, don’t tell,” he advised. Whole Foods has done this by posting pictures of farmers and farms around its stores. Another cool idea shared by Sansolo is to have a blackboard in the store that states, “Here’s what’s fresh and local today...”

Two other speakers focused on the desirability of promoting local goods. Michael Shuman, author of Small Mart, noted that oil price increases is good news for local economies and that concerns about climate change also makes local better.

He noted the importance of local business to local economies (multiplier effects, for example).

It’s MUCH more expensive to develop NON-local business jobs (AND these businesses are more likely to leave). Local businesses offer higher multiplier effects—three times as many jobs, charitable contributions, taxes from local versus chain stores. If you think about Borders versus local bookstores—local bookstores use more local advertising. San Francisco did a study and concluded that if the city shifted 10 percent of its businesses to local, it would create an additional 1,300 jobs and save millions of dollars.

Shuman noted another reasons that local is better, namely its contribution to smart growth, tourism, entrepreneurship, lower CO2, social equity, fostering a "civil soul" and political participation. Even so, 90 percent of local money used for business creation is directed at attracting non-local business. It’s clearly not the biggest bang for the buck.

“Our current local investment strategy is very counterproductive. Even with these bad policies, local businesses have remained profitable,” Shuman said. He also referenced the need for more local financing with accredited investors. “Only two percent of money in the U.S. is for local accredited investment,” Shuman noted. There are also local stock precedents, e.g. The Merc in Powell, Wyoming. Local investing brings about community loyalty. It’s more profitable because it focuses on existing firms. The investors equal the consumers, they’re more “real” because they’re local, and the multipliers are very high in small communities.

“Collaboration is the antidote to scale,” Shuman concluded.

Another speaker, Mark Kastel, himself an organic farmer and co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute in Southwest Wisconsin, said that co-ops’ secret weapon is the passion of our customers for organic farmers. The organic business is $25 billion per year and growing. Now that “big boys” have seen the trend, food co-ops are at a competitive disadvantage. But, Kastel said, “We’re not just selling food, we’re selling ideas. Sell the sizzle, not the steak (or frying tofu)…”

Co-ops are farmer’s markets seven days per a week. But we have to make that a reality. And it’s important to brand the store as the local portal for local produce.

Some other pointers from Kastel:

  • Don’t wait for farms to come to YOU.
  • Never run out of local produce in season.
  • Say to farmers, if you “build it, we will come.”
  • Connect farmers to owner members.

In terms of one of the common criticisms of independent food co-ops, when people talk about the expense of co-op products, the counterpoint is that our price IS right when you consider that the money is invested in people locally and for community benefit.

At a breakout session, an economist from Canada who has studied credit unions for years made a point that really hit home: His studies show that the best way to build customer loyalty is to have EMPLOYEE loyalty first! We hope we’ve achieved that at New Leaf Market and are ever vigilant that loyalty is a multi-way street with intersecting paths of employees, shoppers, directors, and especially owners.

As Mark Kastel said, the quest for authenticity is great. Thanks for keeping it real, New Leaf Market!

2014 Business of the Year2014 Locally Owned Business of the Year

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