Tucked into the majesty of the Rocky mountains is Boulder, CO. A bustling, diverse community that is, in many ways, a slightly smaller Madison in the mountains, Boulder was an ideal setting for this year’s “Focus on Fresh” conference put on by the National Cooperative Grocers’ Association (NCGA). Primarily focusing on deli, prepared foods, produce, fish and meat, this conference provided an excellent chance for people working in these departments at co-ops all over the country to meet, exchange ideas, gather information, hear about new products and marketing ideas, and discuss trends that we have been noticing in our own co-ops as well as throughout the industry.
As this was my first ever NCGA-related conference, I was not quite sure what to expect or how much valid information I would be bringing back to Willy Street Co-op. I was pleasantly, if not slightly overwhelmingly, impressed with the way this conference was organized and how much information they managed to pack into the two-day conference. While not everything I heard was relevant to our specific corner of the co-op world, the vast majority of what was said was—in some way—worth my being there to hear.
A good deal of the conference was concentrated on how we, as fresh product teams within cooperative grocery stores, can stay competitive in an ever-growing natural and organic foods market. As has been the trend for years now, organic and local foods are becoming increasingly available in more and more grocery stores. It is no longer just the “natural foods” stores or co-ops that routinely offer organic and local food selections; major grocery stores have greatly increased their offerings in these departments, albeit often with a less holistic approach than a cooperative might. While there were many different ideas suggested that could have an impact on the ability of cooperative grocery stores to stay competitive, the one heard most often and that we have always found to ring most true is the focus on customer service. While big grocery stores may be able to offer better prices on some items, at least some of the time, there is a significant difference between the customer service offered by co-ops and that offered by corporate (often big box-style) grocery stores. Co-ops strive very hard to make sure that our employees are a deep well of knowledge about the products, the vendors, the farmers, and myriad other things about which they have been repeatedly asked or they, themselves, have inquired about. While it is not always easy to find out the precise answers to some of the very detailed questions our customers ask, it has been my observation that co-op employees put forth more effort into finding out the right answer than I have ever seen offered by other grocery stores. The sentiment at this conference was that as long as co-ops work on maintaining an exceedingly high level of customer service, we will always have something different (and in my opinion, better) to offer than our more corporate competitors.
Grassfed, New products, Cooking at home
There were also many other topics discussed and shared during the conference. We had the opportunity to hear a presentation by Carrie Balkcom from the American Grassfed Association (www.americangrassfed.org), who spoke about the importance of maintaining high standards and proper certification for grassfed livestock and emphasized the necessity of educating our customers on the multitude of benefits that grassfed products provide. We heard from vendors offering new products ranging from chili to hand lotion made from the glycerin that is a byproduct of making bio-diesel (www.furtherproducts.com), and there was also a good deal of talk about the trend we are seeing that shows more people are returning to cooking at home—indicated by the growth of sales in fresh/produce departments coupled with a decline in sales of packaged grocery items. There was also a great deal of general discussion on what changes (structural, staffing-wise, product changes/additions) co-ops are making to keep pace with the changes we are seeing in our own areas.
Overall, this conference was an amazing opportunity for me to expand my knowledge and understanding about what it means to be a part of the cooperative grocery world. Having assumed my position as Assistant Deli Manager just over one year ago, I found that the resources this conference provided me with were immensely helpful. I am developing some great relationships with other deli and fresh product managers who I know will be excellent resources for not just me, but for my department, and Willy Street Co-op as a whole.