More Than Just a Loyalty Program: Co-op Food Stores’ Membership Engagement Story

Making Membership More than a Loyalty Program

Within minutes of starting a conversation about Co-op Food Stores’ member engagement work, Director of Cooperative Engagement Amanda Charland uses the word “transformative.” She’s so eager to deploy the descriptor, in fact, that as co-op General Manager Ed Fox begins describing the process, Amanda interrupts him, making sure he doesn’t bury the lede. 

it was unlike any other work around member engagement they had ever done—and, of course, it transformed Co-op Food Stores in a holistic way

The pair’s easy rapport allows Ed to elaborate on Amanda’s apt injection. Working with Beth Saunders Associates to define, deepen, and streamline the co-op’s member engagement process has “touched every part of the organization, from how we decide what products to bring in, to how we merchandise them, to how we do our programs,” he explains. “We’re actually looking at renovating one of our stores, and we’ve looked at some of our engagement information to work with the architect around store layout, store design.” It was methodical, the two agree. It wasn’t always easy, but it was unlike any other work around member engagement they had ever done—and, of course, it transformed Co-op Food Stores in a holistic way.

Amanda explains: “Because we’re owned by 24,000 members in our community, we do a lot of work to give back, because our members expect good jobs in the community and support for nonprofit organizations. Because of that we have really unique programs that help our community and strengthen our local food system.”

“With so many people who have a major say in our business, membership needs to be more than just a loyalty program for us,” she says. “People need to be engaged with the business, and have an idea of what’s going on, so they can help us make those major decisions.” Although employees shared a dedication to engaging members, the co-op’s various departments defined engagement differently: for sales, greater engagement meant more revenue; the board interpreted engagement as member participation in voting; and member services saw engagement as spending time with the co-op. Even after working with several consultants and programs, nothing had changed; Co-op Food Stores was burning up resources on something amorphous.

Understanding, Reflecting, and Re-Imagining

As the co-op’s general manager, Ed recognized the member engagement pattern—and the potential to change it. The nonprofit where Ed had worked before arriving at the co-op had hired Beth Saunders Associates to consult on engagement strategy. “And I was intrigued by her vision of engagement, that it’s more than just asking people for money. That you ask them to go through steps within their engagement,” he said. “Her vision was very much in line with what we wanted to do here.”

Initially, Amanda was wary. “When we started this process, I was searching for any kind of engagement help that we could get. Luckily, we were able to really focus our energy with Beth and Cindy, and it was clear pretty quickly how different this program was and the different value that it would bring. I had to work so closely with them; it was really important that my team and I were really invested in this process, and that happened very quickly.”

Beth built trust by brainstorming with Amanda, Ed, and the co-op board chair about their hopes, then guided the organization in creating their vision. Pinpointing that proved “surprisingly difficult,” Amanda says, “but Beth was really good,” helping them by repeatedly asking “why?” Nudged to consider what the organization does in its local communities, employees and leaders agreed on their vision: A well-nourished community cultivated through cooperation.

Beth helped Co-op Food Stores’ management to build on that first step by looking inward again to discern how to bring their mission to life in tangible, concrete ways. “We had to become better listeners for our customers. And we had to actually get them the things they wanted in the places they were looking for them,” Amanda explains. “That sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s amazing how many times we realized that we were asking customers to do things we wanted them to do, not thinking about things that they actually were looking for.”

Re-imagining member engagement meant “reaching out into our customer base and our membership and understanding what it was that people liked about us, and understanding who people are at a really deep level; their behaviors, their expectations, where they look for information,” Amanda says. “This process was like taking a college course on our customers, because it really got us to become critical thinkers and partners for our customers, instead of just telling our story and trying to force things to work for people.” 

Unprecedented Growth and Engagement

From this, the transformation. For one, the process brought a common experience and understanding to the entire organization, as well as shared tools to help them grow member engagement as employees (now) all define it. “Everybody is talking about these customers and understanding things about them that they didn’t understand before,” Amanda says.

It also brought relief. Before, “there were successes, but they were very small successes,” Amanda says. According to Ed, “I think we were working at just casting a wide net, and broadcasting everything we did.” Now, having looked within to understand Co-op Food Stores’ mission, and having heard from customers and working with personas, “we have a much deeper understanding of why we’re doing the things that we’re doing, and what we’re trying to accomplish,” Amanda says.

As the co-op’s work with Beth Saunders Associates wrapped up, it quickly yielded change. “We had amazing results even before we finished building the member engagement program. We were seeing things like a 50 percent increase in participation in our entire learning kitchen,” Amanda says. “We went from 1,791 participants to 2,683 participants. We had new programs we were launching hitting 96 percent enrollment rates.”

Co-op Food Stores’ shift is noteworthy. Enough so, in fact, that Amanda, Beth, and Cindy have co-presented the story at conferences, to help others in the co-op grocery world understand how to flip and deepen their idea of member engagement. “We’re being seen as a leader in changing the engagement strategies and practices in the cooperative grocery world,” Ed says. “The cooperative grocery world is getting a new wave of leadership, and they’re embracing and looking for something new. This was different for them to hear. We’re getting more and more people asking us, ‘What’s going on up there in Hanover? I hear you guys are doing some great things.’”