I moved to a college town in the early 1970s. Academic types of that era, having hounded Nixon from office, filled the void with household campaigns like backyard composting and forcing their kids to eat blackstrap molasses.
It wasn’t long before my parents joined a food co-op, housed initially in the underlit basement of a local church. Women in homespun garments scooped bulk millet into old Mason jars. Bearded men argued about socialism and the evils of white flour. Had I entered the premises with a bottle of RC Cola, I imagined people would have run screaming from the building.
In later years, my sister and I were consigned on weekends to serve as “cooperators,” earning the work credits required of all members. Under the watchful eyes of surly graduate students, we apportioned mountains of sticky raisins into plastic bags and wrapped alarming quantities of chicken in cellophane packets. In retrospect, it’s a miracle we didn’t start a plague.
As an adult I steered clear of health food and its adherents for some years. But like a wayward cat that wearies of roaming, I eventually returned to the fold. There is a wonderful food co-op right in our neighborhood, and for the past 15 years my wife and I have counted ourselves among the more than 1 billion people worldwide who are member/owners of co-operatives of various types.
Much like the co-op of my distant childhood, Weavers Way was founded in the early 1970s and initially resided in a church basement. A true neighborhood institution, it serves as a retail anchor on an otherwise nondescript corner that also houses a local coffee roastery, an independent bookstore, a yoga studio, and a pop-up space lately occupied by a typewriter repairman.
Despite these deep roots in the community, our humble co-op was recently overtaken with collective anxiety when a grocery store chain, The Fresh Market, opened up down the street. Along with brand recognition and advertising, the 178-store chain brought significant buying leverage that would enable it to easily undercut a humble two-store co-op.
Wouldn’t the co-op’s shoppers immediately decamp for The Fresh Market’s spacious new building, with its massive selection, low prices, and ample parking? The Weavers Way general manager clearly thought so. In one typically gloomy prediction, he foresaw losing 25 percent of the co-op’s shoppers and cutting headcount by a comparable percentage.
So what happened? Did the bearded tofu-huggers jump ship in search of low prices? Did our beloved co-op close its doors, to be replaced by a Starbucks?
Of course not. A year after The Fresh Market opened, Weavers Way is doing better than ever – in fact, plans are underway for a third location.
It turns out co-op shoppers go there for a lot of reasons unrelated to prices. They like running into people they know. They like bottling their own Kombucha and scooping their own millet. They like having a relationship with their food store that goes beyond the mere transactional.
What fascinates me about this story is the extent to which the co-op management misunderstood its brand and in so doing, misread its shoppers. The lesson here for consumer brands of all types and sizes is that your consumer is the true owner of your brand.
This is just one of many examples on how the food value chain is transforming. Learn more about upcoming trends for manufacturers and retailers of food products on the “The Future of Food.”