Increasing numbers of co-ops conduct an annual survey of members or of shoppers in the store. Often these surveys are directed at evaluating the core business operation: How far do you travel? What other stores do you shop at and why? What do you like about shopping at the co-op? Some co-ops also survey newsletter readers. Often members are informally surveyed by votes on boycotts.
For those co-ops that aren't doing it already, I highly recommend conducting a special survey on membership knowledge, needs, lifestyles and desires.
A good method is to interview at least 300 customers/owners in the store. Vary the times of day and days of the week to get a good representative sample. Keep your survey length within reason -- a member does not need to be punished for agreeing to be surveyed.
Some co-ops offer gift certificates as a reward for participating and giving the time to answer questions. Keep track of the number of interview refusals. If such refusals should go about 50 percent of those randomly selected, then you need to change your approach. The data becomes suspect, and something in your approach isn't working.
Surveying your members as owners is a valuable tool in managing your co-op. You can develop a data base of exceptional quality. The results will be a better capital base, better communications and a co-op truly in touch with its members.
Knowledge: An effective survey needs to address owner/member knowledge of the membership program. For example, why aren't members investing more in your co-op?
In our co-op's survey, a question was posed on the requirement to keep investing up to the required share amount or "fair share." The requirement had been explained in the newsletter and membership pamphlets, but members were not responding. A key answer was contained in an owner/member survey. The survey showed that the average member was unaware of the requirement to voluntarily increase the investment over time. The Co-op then adopted a program of communicating this over and over to members. In addition, the member discount program was tied to regular investments up to the fair share amount. Two years later the vast majority of members knew of the requirement. More importantly, this co-op had a working equity system that gave it the capital necessary to survive and grow.
Understandability: Ask questions about whether your members understand your membership system. In our case again, the North Coast Cooperative kept adding to its membership system over the years as various problems needed to be solved. Each problem was solved at the expense of developing a more complex system. While a few knowledgeable staff took pride in explaining the many exciting features, the system was quite complex.
A survey was conducted of the members. The results were overwhelming. Ours may have been the best system in the world, but it was so complex that members hardly had a clue. Employees had difficulty explaining it. Membership brochures couldn't describe the system in a few sentences.
A major revision was done of the entire membership program so that marketing, education and all other employees could explain membership in a single sentence. During the first month after the new simple system was implemented, memberships doubled. By three months later, memberships had tripled. Mind you, this is in a "no sales growth" market and with a stable membership base for some number of years.
Targeting: If your co-op makes donations to community groups, it is important to know which is the right group to make your members feel vicariously proud of their co-op. You can delegate this task to an employee or handle it in various ways. It is much better to survey your members.
Support for alternative economic development, local businesses and sustainable agriculture have pretty consistently been important to food co-op members across the country. Articles about these topics in your newsletter are essential. It is important to devote valuable newsletter space to the role your co-op has played in supporting such groups. Don't hesitate to use the mass media, if available, to establish your position in the community. If certain groups are important to your marketing, recruit the executive director or a board member to become a co-op member. Send the community group a card of congratulations when they receive a grant. When the natural food chain comes and attempts to make a small donation and trumpet it in the mass market, you have the most important groups in your membership supporting their co-op.
Before allocating time and resources for any one group, use a survey to determine what is really important to your members. Use a follow-up survey to find out whether your members are aware of what you are doing in the community.
New member information base: Try to get good data on why members are currently joining your co-op. This may be different than why members joined twenty years ago. This will help you in making membership attractive now. Remember to keep the material private, and have a policy to prevent distribution.
Lifestyles: Don't neglect the lifestyles and age of your members. In a two-year period, members of the North Coast Cooperative reported a 20 percent increase in walking as the principal hobby. Prior surveys had shown running, swimming and cycling, and as a consequence, our co-op acquired chief sponsorship of the best "hard body' race in the county; many of the winners went to the Olympic tryouts in Atlanta. We are working with the running club to support strongly walking through the old growth redwoods as part of this event. A soft health event better suits our members' demographics. The national trend of co-op members getting older creates the increasing need to market to an older population and at the same time develop a strategy for getting younger members.
We have found that a voluntary survey for new members, in which you give them a $2.50 gift certificate, is a very cost efficient way to get this information. In our co-op, more formal random member surveys have shown that the $2.50 gift certificate does not affect or skew the results. I happen to like this system, as it points up membership trends a bit faster than a total survey and points out why current members are joining.
Now and the future: Read your surveys for the now and the future. Let's say your survey shows that 68 percent of your members support you because you carry natural food products, 10 percent because of your support of sustainable agriculture, and 7 percent for environmental/community reasons, with your location being rated as the number one reason members shop elsewhere, yet there is a very high satisfaction with your co-op. Being an owner is important to 1 percent of the members.
The now analysis would show a strong co-op. The future would show that you are very vulnerable to a natural food store chain in a better location. Clearly you should be (a) stressing the co-op's history of providing natural foods and (b) attempting to increase your numbers for sustainable agriculture, environmental and community support to perhaps 25-35 percent. Incidentally, most member surveys are showing that being a co-op owner of the business is not a greatly motivating factor; most people join for non-ownership reasons.
Key words: Certain key words -- support, home grown, sustainable agriculture, membership (instead of shares), ownership discount (instead of patronage refund) -- are proving by and large across the nation to be the words members use and like. If your members fit this norm, it would be wise to use these slogans, words, and phrases first and most aggressively in your market. Surveys allow you to be a leader in your market instead of trying to play "catch up" communication when the chains arrive and strongly market to your membership base.
Quality circles: Quality circles such as those Puget Consumers' Cooperative has set up are a good follow-up for getting a detailed response. These small groups allow for in-depth discussion and are helpful in defining a positive or negative that shows up in the survey but you just aren't sure what it means.
Read the results carefully: Take some time to figure out what the survey results mean. Many years ago my co-op responded to a member survey that had requested increased hours by keeping the store open longer at night. The interpretation of this owner/customer response was to be open later at night. Yet sales increases were dismal. It turned out they wanted the store open earlier.
Caveats: The way you sell membership shares may be restricted by state securities laws. I have rarely found the required legal language conducive to good communication or consistent with membership survey wording preferences. Membership surveys provide high quality information. That does not mean that it should be blindly followed.
For example, a recent survey showed for one co-op that a large of members were in favor of paying a large annual fee in exchange for a larger discount. However, having a fee instead of ownership goes to the heart of being a co-op. This survey reminds us that "membership fee" discount food chains have a broad market appeal. It also suggests that the concepts of cooperative ownership need to be better explained to members.
My final caveat is that you will be compiling valuable information. This needs to be carefully weighed with the desire to communicate with members. If you are spending $1,000 to $10,000 per year to gather this information, I would be careful about putting it in your newsletter, where your competition can use it for free. We have learned over the years that our North Coast Cooperative newsletter is carefully read by our competition. Our competition believe our marketing surveys are quite professional and appreciate the free use of them whenever possible.
In conclusion, surveys of your members as owners and a special constituency are a valuable tool in managing your co-op. You can develop a data base of exceptional quality. The results will be a better capital base, better communications and a co-op truly in touch with its members. It doesn't get better than that.