Keep It Fresh!


What are you in the market for?” Although this common phrase is used in every context from buying a car to a new office machine, it may be a question retailers should be asking their customers. When was the last time you did a customer survey to find who they are and what they want?

Recent surveys have shown that organic and natural food customers are changing and that the same group that got you started can no longer fuel your growth. Mainstream shoppers are looking for better food choices. Are you prepared to serve them when they come into your co-op?

Do you have a clear identity in the community? Is it the same as it was 20 years ago? If so, is it an asset or a liability? Are you growing with your community, not just expanding the walls but expanding your outreach and product selection?

Who’s moving into the area? Do they know you exist? Could you serve them if they did?

For example, Asian-American households possess the highest per capita income of any group. People of Indian origin are the fastest growing major demographic group; this group grew 105 percent between 1990 and 2000. The Latino population is not only growing in numbers, but also in purchasing power. Consider that 18 percent of U.S. children aged from four to nine are Hispanic, which means that the Hispanic market will be looking for a place to flex its purchasing power.

What’s the connection among all of the groups I’ve mentioned? They place a high value on food, still prepare dishes mostly from scratch, and, most importantly, want it fresh.

Once you’ve answered the above questions, reviewed your client base, and have an idea of how to market yourself outside the store, there are some things you should look at inside the store as well. Once you get them in the door, you want to make sure they come back.

Are you fresh enough?

Natural Marketing Institute research shows that natural and organic food shoppers overwhelmingly rate freshness as a primary reason for choosing one store over another. Do you leave your zucchini on the stand a day longer than you should as a last ditch effort to avoid writing them off as shrink? Do you have a late truck coming in on Monday and ordering so tight that Monday morning shoppers have to pick through a half-empty stand?

Do you run out of fresh-baked bread at 5:00 p.m.? Or is your display full on Mondays but always out on Tuesday? Some excuses as to why this might occur are, “I’m trying to keep my ordering tight or my shrink is too high so I have to leave it out longer,” or “The bakery only delivers fresh loaves of bread on Mondays.”

You don’t need research to tell you that your customers will notice. And you know what? They will go elsewhere to find consistent fresh product, even if it means driving a little further. The research shows that people are willing to travel 10 to 40 minutes for fresher product. This same customer is willing to pay a premium for freshness.

Here are some steps you can take to keep customers coming to your store for the freshest product:
• Develop quality/freshness standards and teach them to the whole crew.
• Remove mediocre product.
• Order enough to keep your stand full until the truck comes—fullness sells!
• If one local bakery can’t keep the stand full, find an alternative to fill the space with fresh product on alternate days.
• Remember, customers won’t buy excuses.
Once you have a reputation for freshness, customers will start to notice your other products and services, so make sure you are up to speed.

Don’t make ’em wait

Speaking of speed, we live in a busy society, and even the most diehard customer will find a long wait frustrating. According to research, if they have to wait seven minutes or longer at the register on a regular basis they will shop elsewhere. If you have a small store and only two registers, consider adding a register that you only use during your busiest times. You may have to reconfigure your register area.

I recently worked with a store that did just that, calling it the Saturday register. They found it not only made a difference on the weekend but on busy nights too! This additional register eased customer frustration and made a noticeable difference when a new Trader Joe’s came to town.

At the registers, you have a captive audience: why not put out fresh produce samples and a copy of your newsletter? Or do what Pauline Banducci, marketing manager at the Berkshire Co-op, did: laminate the co-op’s newsletter and put it on a ring at the register for all to read.

Where are you?

How long does it take a customer to find some help? If it’s two or more minutes you’ve lost them. It shouldn’t be difficult to shop or get help. Customers aren’t sure what to expect in a new environment, so it’s up to you to make their first impression a good one.

Knowledge is power! While many co-ops do a good job with staff product education, too many still fall behind in this area. Customers who are new to organic/natural are looking for answers. I still commonly find staff working the busiest store hours who can’t answer the most basic questions on organic, seasonality, store policy, and so on. Folks surveyed said they would go elsewhere if fewer than a third of the staff were knowledgeable about the products you carry.

No one wants to shop at a store where they feel like they are bothering someone when they ask a question or it is a chore to check you out. The survey showed that customers expect at least three-fourths of your staff to be friendly and helpful.

The almighty dollar

Lastly, price image in your community is something to be aware of. Are you perceived to have higher prices? Of course, it doesn’t have to be true to have an adverse affect. Store managers often think they have a pretty good price image, but employees of the same co-op, when asked, say they think the community sees them as too high-priced. Price image is important to include in your staff education.

One experiment you might conduct to dispel a high-priced perception is to have each of your management and staff take $100 and shop for a family of three for a week. Look at the results together, and you’ll be surprised to find that it’s more affordable than they thought. It’s a fun way get staff to see the value in eating whole foods. The results will help you market your everyday values to the community and at the same time you’ll create in-store ambassadors.

For years the mission of co-ops has been about freshness, whole foods, and community. Now, the rest of the world is ready to embrace these ideas. So, it’s good when we know what these customers are in the market for!

*** Mark Mulcahy is an organic produce educator, now working at New Leaf Community Market in Santa Cruz, California ([email protected]).

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