|Board of Directors Report: Perspectives from Co-op Shoppers|
by Wesley Pittman
I’ve been asking a random sample of Co-op members over the age of 60 how they shop our store and how they relate to our Co-op. What I had in mind was to make a composite profile of a Co-op senior shopper. I failed; there is no composite Co-op shopper over the age of 60. Everyone I spoke with uses our Co-op in unique ways and has unique and often contradictory expectations of our store and our cooperative enterprise: we want to buy and eat local and we want avocados year round; we want our association to offer a better, fairer marketplace than what is offered by the chains; and we want prices as low as those of traditional grocery stores.
I asked B., a former health food retailer, how he shops and why. He said something similar to what I've recently read in the magazine of the National Cooperative Grocers: “Retail is war.” He shops all over our town to get the best prices on the items he needs. Surprised by his response, I recite what I can remember of our cooperative values and tell him I think these values are as important as the value of price. I'm not going to overpay for tea, he says.
The first thing my friend J. says is, “I really like the price and selection of bulk teas, the whole Bulk department.” She joined the Co-op "to get good basic stuff." She can't afford to buy everything she needs from the Co-op. But she buys as much as she can because she likes the quality. She has noticed that Sabine and her management team are paying attention to price. J. trusts the Co-op: the sourcing of vitamins, for example, is excellent. She believes in the values of the cooperative movement, but thinks that the movement has changed. “There are too many high-end products. The 1% has money for luxuries, but not me.” We are deep into the land of personal choice here, I think; some of her favorite bulk items are chocolate-covered almonds and umeboshi plum vinegar.
E. has been a member of the BFC since 1976. She's committed, to this Co-op and to cooperatives in general. " I think co-ops could be an alternative mode of economic organization but we are stymied by big agribusiness and big supermarkets and . . . the corn subsidies that keep low-nutrition food cheap." She says she can shop at the Co-op because she is part of the (vanishing) middle class but that many in our community can't afford to pay a bit more for quality. For some, the values of our Co-op and the cooperative movement are a luxury. I remind her that the values of the cooperative movement created the Pennywise Pantry program, which offers tours and training for those who want to eat well affordably. I think of the cheap meals I've made from a little quinoa and scraps of vegetables found in my refrigerator.
If retail is war, are we soldiers, contested territory, or collateral damage? Among those of us who are seniors, many came to Vermont to find a better way and to make a better world. I think our Co-op is an important part of that way and that world. Here's E. again: she doesn't know how to address the big business tactic of price-cutting "short of organizing massive co-ops or overthrowing unfettered capitalism, neither of which is likely to happen in my lifetime." One thing I know about being a senior: so much that was thought to be unlikely has already happened in my lifetime. I've lost track of the wars fought—I'm told, for my sake. Now I'm told that the retail grocery business is war. May we live in peace.
Every person I spoke with for this article mentioned the importance of supporting local farms and local products. For me, the Brattleboro Food Co-op is a precious local product built on value and values well worth fighting for.