Promoting the Co-op Store

"Do everything in your power to ensure the quality of your products and services before marketing your business," recommends the author of Guerrilla Marketing, Jay Conrad Levinson. Quality services will provide a strong foundation on which to build a successful marketing campaign.

Consider all aspects of operations as a service you provide your customers. In the previous column, (Cooperative Grocer #14, Dec.-Jan., 1988) we identified three types of services: basic services, including offering quality products and a courteous staff; special services, such as educational tools and special order privileges; and physical appearance, including store layout and cleanliness.

These elements are key to gaining customers through word of mouth sales, the first stage of a publicity campaign. When the co-op develops a reputation for having quality service and offering those special "extras," people will start bringing their friends.

At this point, you are ready to develop a marketing campaign to bring in new member/customers. Co-ops are unique organizations that offer many advantages over traditional businesses. In our promotional campaign, we can set ourselves apart from other businesses through the message we present and how we present it. Let's explore three areas where co-ops can differentiate themselves through promotions:


A co-op's greatest resource is its membership. This is your most loyal base of customers, a base you want to develop continually.

The membership program can be a promotional tool for the co-op. The way to attract a greater membership and more equity is to build a benefits package that is attractive. When developing a benefits package, think in terms of tangible benefits that would attract you to an organization. For many years, members were expected to join the co-op, contribute labor, attend meetings, etc., for a discount on their food purchases. But co-ops have broadened their base, and this older system is not as attractive to the general public.

The challenge for today's co-op is to change people's perception of what it means to be a member and offer a membership program anyone can join. A member needs to feel that shopping at the co-op is their contribution to the organization. Optimally, the membership program should offer labor as an option, not a requirement, so that members can choose their level of participation. The program can be free of guilt and full of benefits.

The benefits can include a discount on purchases and/or dividends, group rate insurance programs, a credit union, no cost classified ads in the newsletter, discounts at other businesses, free or discounted admission to events sponsored by the co-op, and much more. The membership program can also be promoted as an opportunity for members to contribute to the community.

Use your membership program to attract new members. It will build your base of loyal customers, which is the primary objective in your promotional campaign. Encourage word of mouth promotion by offering an incentive to current members who bring in new members.


Newsletters are another advantage coops have over most businesses. An in-house newsletter is your strongest tool for communicating your message to customers and members. The publication offers your co-op the opportunity to educate shoppers, promote the co-op, introduce products and create a link with the community.

Members can participate by contributing articles, recipes and bringing community news. The community can be recognized through a calendar and report on special events and people. The co-op news can include board, management and department reports, upcoming sales, promotions, classes and other events, plus highlights on the people involved in the co-op. Other educational information can include columns by local health professionals, reports on food politics, nutrition and new products.

As a promotional tool, the newsletter is another way to build loyal customers. It can be distributed through the store, dropped off at strategic locations around town and mailed directly to members' homes. The newsletter also acts as a link with the community. You can strengthen the link by offering ad space in the newsletter to help promote other community organizations.

More Than a Food Store

A third advantage co-ops have over traditional businesses is the opportunity to become more than just a food store. By using your marketing campaign to tie the co-op in with the community, the co-op becomes an organization that benefits that community. The next step in developing our marketing campaign relies on creating a formal link with the community.

By working with organizations in the community, you can reduce the costs of publicity, spread community good will, and once again help to build that base of loyal customers. The co-op alone also can offer services to the community, including classes and the services we discussed earlier. The co-op can go out and bring the community to its doors with a speakers program and by offering tours to schools, senior centers, neighborhood associations and others.

Co-sponsoring events, runs, dances and block parties to raise money for nonprofits can mean broad public exposure, especially if it happens at your co-op. Sponsor athletic events, raffles, hold an anniversary party, offer free dinner at your general membership meeting, hold a tasting fair and other fun events. Get your supplier involved in sponsoring community events. The relationship you build with your suppliers can help both of you.

Use the media to strengthen your link with the community. Publicize all your events through press releases, and to make a stand on current health issues. Press releases are your key to getting media attention.

To develop a relationship with the media, call and write to the newspaper editors, disc jockeys, talk show hosts, and television personalities. Also talk with your ad reps and ask them how you can stretch your ad dollars through interviews, getting involved in their promotional campaigns and publicizing your special events. Have the co-op included in newspaper price comparisons. Work with the food editor to tie in cooking classes and demonstrations with feature articles.

The key to your successful campaign is your ability to plan ahead. Develop a promotional calendar and work about three months ahead of schedule to be fully prepared. Determine timelines for press releases. Work with your co-sponsors and non-profit organizations to lessen the burden of publicity and organization. Plan ahead with your suppliers, distributors and brokers to receive free samples, education materials, labor, supplies, and ad dollars.

Utilize members and staff to help publicize, organize and run special events. Your members and staff can be a tremendous resource in linking you with the community, whether as a labor pool, a source of ideas or a select group of skilled professionals offering classes and services through the co-op.

We have outlined steps to create a high public profile for your co-op. You will find that these methods of publicity can not only increase the impact of your ad dollars, but more effectively reach your market and build a solid base of customers. Traditional advertising alone cannot create the same media image and guarantee the same results.

"Marketing is everything you do to promote your busines, from the moment you conceive of it to the point at which customers buy your product or service and begin to patronize your business on a regular basis." Another statement lifted from the pages of Guerilla Marketing, a book we recommend.

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