Grocery Shopping in a Recession

Tips for offering the best deal

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To anyone over the age of 40, the signs are clear: an increase in job seekers, their average age, and their anxiety level; monthly or even weekly price increases from suppliers; and consumers that are suddenly, astonishingly, price sensitive. Only the fashions let you know that it’s not 1976, and recession has rolled round again.

1976 was, actually, a pretty good year for co-ops. (Shout out to the co-ops, from Belfast to Wheatsville, founded that year and still going strong!) Driven by the energy crisis, economic woes and an ever-increasing fear of additives, many 1970s shoppers discovered the joy of bulk buying at their local co-op. They also, of course, discovered the cooperative principles that are the backbone of food cooperatives.

Unsurprisingly, cooperative principles serve us well in a time of crisis. As financial trends worsen and consumer anxiety increases, co-ops have a great opportunity to lend a hand to members through education, concern for community and even member economic participation.

Here are some ways our implementation of the cooperative principles supports our shoppers at the Davis Food Co-op. Some projects are simple and inexpensive to put into place, while others are more time consuming or resource intensive. All will offer some welcome relief to sticker-shocked shoppers.

Governmental public assistance programs
Davis Food Co-op (DFC) is a hybrid store, carrying everything from locally produced raw foods to Coca-Cola. That makes it a little easier for us to accommodate shoppers using food assistance programs, but it still requires some thought on our part. We make a point of walking the store with the Women, Infants & Children (WIC) brochure to ensure that we have a wide selection of products available under that program. WIC approved products are marked on the shelves with channel signage, and our front doors and registers have signs indicating that we accept WIC. Perhaps most importantly, we invest a lot of time in training our cashiers to handle these more complicated transactions, with a focus on being sensitive to shoppers who may feel self-conscious about using assistance.

Education and outreach to low income groups
Co-ops don’t always feel accessible to low income shoppers, or to any new shopper, for that matter. A little outreach can go a long way in changing that perception. DFC takes our show on the road to offer free lectures and classes at low-income, senior and transitional housing and to public schools and preschools, religious groups, and anyone else who will have us. A friendly, sensible presentation on almost any aspect of food gives people a chance to feel welcomed and connected to the store. Be sure your presenter is someone who invites that connection from a broad range of community members-this isn’t the job for someone with a rigid viewpoint.

Budget shopping education
DFC produces a set of six budget handouts (available on covering everything from how to write a food budget to the financial and environmental benefits of choosing reusable over disposable products. In fall 2008, we’ll roll out a set of old-fashioned weekly menu cards to help shoppers plan ahead and make the best use of their grocery dollars. Offering literature like this in-store makes it easier and attractive for shoppers who are new to the budgeting game to accept the ideas presented. We make a point of taking this set of literature with us to events to counter the perception of the co-op as exclusive or expensive.

Price comparisons
Do you actually know how your store compares to conventional grocers in your area? Do your shoppers? Co-ops must constantly fight a high-price perception, and the shopping cart comparison can be especially effective. Wisely applied, it can make a nice advertising hook or article for a co-op newsletter. Proving to skeptical new shoppers that, cart for cart, they can save at our stores is not only great marketing; it also is a useful tool for department managers in double-checking their own decisions.

Fee waivers
As you write your budget for the next cycle, bear in mind a probable increase in fee waivers for both membership and classes. At DFC, the true bottom-line entry level for membership is just $5: if you can come up with that, we’ll work out a payment plan for the remaining $10 of your initial investment, and we are prepared to offer payment plans or outright waivers of subsequent investments. For cooking classes, we give one free class a quarter to anyone who says he or she can’t afford to pay, no questions asked. We also have space for volunteer assistants in each class, offering members the chance to attend the class for free while earning a discount at the register.

In addition to being good for local farmers, Community Supported Agriculture programs usually offer great prices for shoppers. While our co-op has never had the space to host a CSA program, we do our best to act as evangelists for the idea. We are, in fact, selling produce for someone else when we do this, but we’re fairly sure that habituating our community to local seasonal produce is going to benefit us all in the long run! Since almost all of the farms in our area that offer CSAs are also Davis Food Co-op suppliers, we generally find pretty quick economic rewards from this policy.

Farmers market support
DFC attends the local farmers market twice a week to offer food demonstrations and recipes. Even in a fairly affluent area, people need encouragement to cook from scratch and try unfamiliar but inexpensive in-season items. While the resources invested are substantial – 16 hours per week of staff time, and $2,500 in printing costs for recipe cards – the rewards far outweigh the price. (For more, see “Farmers Markets: An Invitation to Play,” ). We meet several hundred people each week who aren’t co-op members, and who are encouraged by our presence to cook something new, eat seasonally or shop the co-op. Additionally, the farmers, most of them also co-op suppliers, feel tremendously supported by the program.

Julie Cross works on food education and outreach to schools for Davis Food Co-op ([email protected]).

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