Natural foods cooperatives have historically been leaders in providing education to staff, members and shoppers. The fifth cooperative principle states in part, "We strive to educate members, employees and the public about the products we carry..." Today, many stores carry the same products that once were unique to natural foods cooperatives. How can co-ops stay competitive?
One way natural foods cooperatives can distinguish themselves is by focusing on education and making sure employees are well-informed about the products the store carries. This means knowing not just where to find the tempeh but being able to describe what it is (without using the word "mold") and some ways to use it. And it may mean adding natural foods training for all staff as part of orientation or customer service training.
Imagine a new shopper coming into your store. They are looking for whole wheat flour for a recipe they got from a magazine. Arriving in the bulk department, they find four choices of whole wheat flour. They look around for an employee and stop a cashier or stocker passing through on their way to the back room. Is every employee who works on the floor able to answer basic product questions, or will that cashier or stocker have to ask the shopper to wait while they find someone who can answer their question?
Are the products in your store so complicated and confusing that only a few people know how to explain them? What message does that send to new shoppers? When every employee on the floor knows basic information about the products and respects their quality, new shoppers get the message that employees are helpful and that your store sells the best foods available.
Now think about this scenario from your employee's point of view. How does that employee feel when they are unable to answer a shopper's question? Will that employee want to keep working at your store when they don't know what all the unusual foods are, everyone else seems to know, and there's no plan for new employees to get product training?
Attracting and keeping regular shoppers and great staff depends on satisfying the need of both groups for information. As Heather Kidd in the Human Resources department at the Wedge Co-op explains, "natural foods training is mutually beneficial. The store benefits by improving customer service and staff benefit by learning things they want to know about the foods."
The need to provide staff training in the area of natural foods is certainly not unrecognized. In fact, in a survey conducted by the then-forming Cooperative Grocers Information Network at the 1997 CCMA conference, attendees identified natural foods training for staff as the number one area they would like to see the network address.
Not surprisingly then, only a few stores have a program in place to consistently provide natural foods training for all staff. More commonly, stores provide product information department by department or only to customer service or grocery department staff. Some stores provide information about organic and/or store reference materials during orientation.
At Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, new employees use a "treasure map" to find and learn about products. And all staff attend mandatory 2-hour enrichment meetings four times a year. According to Stephanie Merriman, Staff Enrichment Coordinator, topics have included co-op history, organics, and natural foods and nutrition. Staff take a quiz at the end to test their new knowledge.
In Seattle, the Nutrition Educator at Puget Consumers Co-op, Goldie Caughlan, has developed the Whole Foods Kitchen. This three-hour class, required of all staff, provides an introduction to natural foods starting with the bulk department. By teaching staff that whole grains are alive in the sense that they contain the potential to be living plants in the oil and nutrient-rich germ, she instills in staff an awe and respect for the foods they sell that influences the care they use in handling the products and the attitude with which they answer shopper questions.
Whole Foods Kitchen is also offered free of charge to all PCC members. Other food and cooking classes are offered at the seven PCC stores, and staff are encouraged to attend by receiving a monetary reward after attending any three classes.
Gentle Strength Co-op in Tempe, Arizona uses a program developed in 1991 by Bastyr University in Seattle. The Bastyr program, The Natural Foods Education Program, is a series of self-directed modules using written text, audio and video tapes. Level 1 is a basic new employee orientation to natural foods, while Level 2 goes into more depth about anatomy and physiology and nutrition. According to Theresa Clark, Human Resources Manager at Gentle Strength, all employees must complete Level 1 during their 90-day probation period. Those who continue and complete Level 2 receive a pay raise.
While Gentle Strength and perhaps other co-ops prefer the self-directed style of the Bastyr program, the Wedge Community Co-op in Minneapolis found that it did not work for them. As Elizabeth Archerd, Member Services Director for the Wedge points out, the Bastyr program was not developed for co-ops, the self-study format is time-consuming, and there is no one to answer questions.
Twin Cities Natural Foods Co-ops
The Wedge is a member of Twin Cities Natural Foods Co-ops (TCNFC), a coalition of seven individual, member-owned stores in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. TCNFC was formed in 1995 in order to bring value-added services and benefits to their members and staff. Collectively, TCNFC has about 20,000 members, 500 staff, and $30.5 million in sales in 1997.
Other TCNFC stores were also dissatisfied with the Bastyr program, yet had a need for natural foods training for their employees. In the Twin Cities area there are 14 retail natural food cooperative stores all looking for cashiers, stockers as well as buyers, department heads and managers. That meant that new hires might have no natural foods experience.
In 1995 TCNFC hired two nutrition professionals with natural foods experience to develop a comprehensive training program about natural foods, including over 50 pages of course materials, a mid-class quiz and final exam. The Natural Foods Training Course is unique in that it was developed specifically for co-ops and includes references to co-op history. For example, here is an excerpt from the "Definitions" section of the instructor's course material:
"Processing is probably the most important thing that makes natural foods special. Processing refers to things that are done to or added to foods to make them easier to eat, prepare or store. One of the goals of the early co-op pioneers in Rochdale, England was to provide pure food. They had to contend with flour that was adulterated with ground beans, plaster of Paris and ground bones. We just worry about the whole grain and no chemicals.
"Even though natural foods are often referred to as unprocessed, it is more accurate to consider them minimally processed or naturally processed. There is a difference between natural processing and synthetic or chemical processing. Chemical additives may be harmful and must be removed from the body by the liver, which has many more important things to do. Also, synthetic food chemicals are petroleum by-products and continue our reliance on petroleum, a non-renewable energy source."
The TCNFC Natural Foods Training Course is designed to take advantage of any brochures or product information that is made available to shoppers. In this way staff get the opportunity to become familiar with the resources in their store. The course is arranged to be taught in two three-hour sessions, but the outlines, quiz and test are on disk so that the course can be adapted for the needs of each store.
Blake Ferris, member services/education coordinator at Willy Street Cooperative in Madison, Wisconsin has found that the course meets their need for information about products that are "member-driven instead of market-driven." When large conventional groceries add natural foods they generally add naturally processed versions of common foods such as cereals, chips and cookies, because these products fit easily into the rest of the market. These foods don't generate customer questions. Co-ops typically stock items that perhaps only a handful of shoppers buy regularly, but these items often generate more than their share of questions.
TCNFC's course includes sections on sea vegetables, condiments such as umeboshi paste, gomasio and wasabi as well as the difference between whole grains and refined grains, short grain and long grain rice, and soft and hard whole wheat flour. Staff also learn about food allergies and intolerances, and vegetarian, macrobiotic and aruvedic diets.
Although the course was originally intended for employees with little or no natural foods experience, long-time staff have also taken the course and appreciate the depth and scope of the material.
When a business is faced with competition, its best response is to focus on its strengths. The opening paragraph of the Natural Foods Training Course reminds natural foods cooperatives of one of their strengths:
"Food shoppers, like all consumers, appreciate knowledgeable and helpful store staff. Historically, food co-ops have been the grocery industry leaders in providing education to their shoppers. And food co-ops are the best source of natural foods. The objectives of this course are to answer the question, "What's so special about natural foods?," to increase your knowledge of natural foods and to equip you with some tools to help you with shopper questions and requests."
And the closing paragraph reminds co-op employees of one of their strengths:
"Food shopping is probably the most important thing people do to maintain good health, and they do it so often that the wonder and beauty of food is taken for granted. You all are in a position to raise the shopping experience out of the ordinary and help people reconnect with food as a source of health and life."
When many natural foods cooperatives were first starting in the 1970s, shoppers, members and staff were all the same people, and they were teaching each other about the amazing qualities and delicious variety of natural foods. Co-ops can still generate that excitement in their employees and their shoppers. Education and information was the key then, and it still is today.