Local food is a powerful branding force in grocery retailing. The huge shift in mainstream consumer demand regarding fresh, healthful eating and a desire to know where food comes from has changed how food is marketed and merchandised. Concurrent with the rise of “local” food, online retailing has changed how people buy food. It’s not enough to say its geographic origin. It’s not enough to make it available and put it out on display. Brick-and-mortar retailers need excitement: tastings, photos, staff enthusiasm, social media and meet-and-greet opportunities.
Customers want to know the story—who is the producer and what are their values. They want to taste the food and they want sales staff to tell them what they are eating, how to prepare it and what happens when they buy it, who benefits. People want to leave a store feeling good inside and out—and for them that’s what makes it worth the trouble it takes to step through the door.
How well retailers tell that story in-person and beyond and deliver on what is inherently a branding experience at its core, is imperative to achieving robust consumer interest and strong sales. For cooperatives, doing this authentically is both a business and ethical decision on behalf of owners and customers. But co-ops operate within a competitive environment in which some retailers may not value the same authenticity.
Many grocers understand the significance of “local”, “natural” and “organic” as very attractive attributes, even to those customers who don’t want to pay for them. Competitors may station giant signs and farmer photographs in their produce, cheese and meat departments proclaiming their support of local or organic farming, even though most of the actual product line is from somewhere very far away and not organic at all.
Helping customers discern the real deal, and being on the cutting edge of what it means to deliver a great experience, is a big part of what food co-ops do (and need to do more of) to differentiate themselves. “More and more customers are looking to the co-op to provide an experience. People are moving away from the standard deli case. They don’t want a boring old potato salad. They are looking to the co-op to provide a quality food experience for less than what they’d pay to dine out,” said Kevin O’Donnell, deli and prepared foods consultant.
The challenge, of course, is to meet the need for quality, craftsmanship and heritage that goes into a top-notch food experience. This requires a recognition that providing good food is not enough, you need to tell people why it’s so good. “People who produce our products and provide our ingredients are our story.” From O’Donnell’s perspective, marketing and fresh food departments need to work closely together on delivering the story with the experience. “Using farmer brands and products in prepared foods is important, and it’s doubly important to share that message with customers.”
“It’s important that you show people what this is worth to them. You can’t just bring in people by advertising in the local paper.” O’Donnell said retailers need to think more like restaurants, generating word of mouth about the food and service, and sharing the experience through storytelling. “The co-op can help connect the dots for people through the food.”
James Morrell, produce consultant, said those connections are key. “There’s so much opportunity in talking about local food. One of the building blocks of that work is the relationships the co-op has with farmers and producers and making those strong. It’s the foundation of what we do, and that makes us different from our competitors.”
Since food co-ops have to a large extent pioneered local food retailing, Morrell thinks there’s also a risk of becoming too complacent. “I’d say co-ops do local well, but they’re not always telling the story. You need to highlight what you are doing, continually show people how to create their own relationships to the food.”
Morrell suggests inviting growers into the conversation, sharing that with the staff and conveying it to the customers. That’s where coordination with the marketing department and operational systems is critical. “We can tell the story of why these producers are special through visual storytelling, putting a face on the food, and removing the separation between customers and the farmer.”
Morrell also said not to be afraid to be unabashed in your enthusiasm and love for the farmers and what they grow. “It’s the way we love it and care for it that also makes it special. Get out front in the seasons with bounty and abundance.”
Most of the best stories occur with demos and staff hand-selling product. “Don’t wait for questions. It’s your chance to demonstrate your excitement for it, especially when things are ripe.” One of the most underutilized aspects of food sales is the sensory experience of eating something good. “Using our senses is the doorway to telling good stories. It’s what makes it so compelling and distinguishes your store.”
He also agrees that a big reason for doing this is to educate people about what is local. “We need to share the values defining our economic area of operation. Chains don’t think of local the same way. Be clear with your patrons about what local means to you.”
Many co-ops have supporting the local economy as part of their mission or Ends, and Morrell thinks that is also a big part of the authentic story. The co-op is supporting farmers by sharing with the public the value of what they have grown, whether it is local or organically produced. Demonstrating how ownership of the land, and the co-op, is in the hands of the people who live and work in their communities, not some faraway business entity, shows the impact buying local can have in benefiting the daily lives of many people.
“The co-op is about telling legitimate stories of people and products,” Morrell said. “It’s not just about money but sharing the passion we all have for the land and the food.”
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