Don’t Prove, Persuade

How to talk to the mainstream customer

With America so politically divided between left and right, it might be easy for grocery co-ops to see a vast gulf between themselves and the mainstream.

But according to The Hartman Group’s Organic Lifestyle Shopper Study, mainstream or “mid-level” shoppers might be eager to do business with us. Mid-level shoppers place a premium on organic food, local products, and healthy eating, which means that if we can get them in the door, we might transform them into loyal co-op shoppers—and lots of them.

Taste buds and politics


First, let’s review jargon, so we’re all on the same page.

The Hartman Group identified two key approaches to natural foods shopping: mid-level and core. The “core” refers to activist shoppers. They buy with philosophical or political issues firmly in mind, and they enjoy investigating the ins and outs of food issues.

Meanwhile, the “mid-level” buys for sensual experience: taste, health, and high quality. Food issues can be important, but these shoppers generally avoid details, preferring instead to hear the bottom line from experts.

Arguably, core shoppers built the grocery co-op movement. But as a result of the “organic boom” in the nineties, 56% of the “wellness market” is now mid-level while the core makes up just 10%. So while the core planted the seeds, the mid-level is where grocery co-ops will find future, sustained growth.

So how might co-ops reach mid-level shoppers, after years of preaching to the core?

That co-op expertise


You can tell whether you’re talking to a mid-level or core shopper by how she responds to a broad statement about organics. Here’s a scenario:

A customer asks why she should buy organic strawberries. You say, “It’s a good choice, especially if you have children.”

The core shopper will frown and ask why. For her, you’ll have to cite the University of Washington study that shows a link between pesticides and ADD in kids. The skeptical core won’t buy until she’s persuaded that you know what you’re talking about.

The mid-level shopper, on the other hand, will thank you for your answer and break for the cash registers like a racehorse.

Is the mid-level shopper more gullible? No. She responds this way, according to Hartman Group research, because mid-level shoppers see co-op workers as knowledgeable, friendly, and able to deliver that expert bottom line she seeks. So by presenting ourselves as wise, well-informed neighbors instead of stern authorities, co-ops have an opportunity to create a loyal customer base with mainstream shoppers.

Another factor in the “strawberry scenario” is this: The core doesn’t mind hearing a sound yet negative argument (“conventional produce can carry dangerous synthetic pesticides”), while mid-level shoppers prefer a positive message (“organics are safer for your children”). Ultimately it’s the same argument. But it’s interesting to note that this is an evolution in message similar to the seventies’ food boycotts becoming the nineties’ Fair Trade message: showing customers what they can buy, instead of explaining why they shouldn’t buy it.

With that in mind, here are some other methods for addressing topics important to co-ops and mid-level consumers alike.

Safety, integrity, and confidence

Mid-level shoppers don’t ask detailed questions like core co-op shoppers do. So when talking about food systems (like organics or Fair Trade), focus on what the system promotes, which usually expresses themes important to the mid-level shopper.

• Organic meat is the safest meat in the country.
• Organic integrity is backed up by U.S. law.
• Consumers can have complete confidence that grass-fed beef is a healthy choice.
• Fair Trade coffee promotes fairness, satisfied workers, and healthier farms.

Many choices

Mid-level shoppers respond to words like “choice” and “selection.” When making recommendations, avoid words like “should” and “ought.” Furthermore, “choice” is a word that can bind shopper to farmer:

• Buying corn from Happy Hippie Farm is a great choice because it’s located just outside the city.
• Choosing sustainable veggies means choosing healthy land and tasty food for your kids.
• We have a wide selection of locally grown products for you to choose from.


For a variety of reasons, prices can be higher in natural foods co-ops. Rather than explaining economy of scale, switch the emphasis to worth or better value:

• Organics are tastier and healthier, so they’re worth it for your family.
• Once you taste our organic (fill in the best seasonal produce item available), you’ll realize you’re not getting your money’s worth when you buy cheap food.
• Local veggies may cost a bit more, but they’re fresher.


The mid-level shopper equates local food with freshness and quality. Emphasize your store’s ties to area farmers. Emphasize neighborliness and long-standing friendships over terms like “agribusiness” and “multinational corporations.”

• Our beef arrives fresh from Happy Cow Farm, twice a week. They’re old friends of ours.
• Our customers have been eating So and So’s crisp lettuce for 20 years.
• We think Minnesota produce stands up pretty well to California, that’s why we offer You Betcha Farm’s broccoli.
• Try the [name of luscious food]. We make/bake/grow it right here in the store.
• Happy Hippie Farm is just a 20-minute drive from our back door. We have total confidence in them.

Simple foods

Rather than talking about the evils of processed and overly packaged foods, emphasize ease, simplicity, and distinctiveness. Use words like “old fashioned,” “unique,” “hand made,” “artisan,”

“simple,” and “easy.”
• The bulk aisle is an easy option for trying new foods. You can take as much or as little as you like.
• Our cakes are made the Old-World way—with simple ingredients and artisan-crafted.
• Our deli sandwiches are hand-made right in front of you.

Why can’t we be friends?

All of this preparation will be fruitless if mainstream shoppers don’t view co-ops as a friendly resource. That’s the heart of good customer service, after all: treating every customer as a potential friend. As neighborly experts in the natural foods world, we can help mainstream shoppers by offering integrity and making it clear that they can get answers at their own pace.

All co-ops have to do is open the door to them.

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