by: Troy Bond
Every co-op grocery has purity standards for the foods they sell. That’s why many co-ops started in the first place: to be a resource for wholesome, non-commercial foods. As I witnessed at the NCGA meeting in Seattle in September, when the discussion at a table of GMs came to what a food co-op should carry, the assumptions and judgments start to fly.
Some co-ops carry Coke. Others are aghast, but don’t see any problem if Heinz ketchup is on the shelf. Co-ops like these generally serve as a convenient neighborhood marketplace in addition to being a destination for local and organic foods.
I listened to the debate with interest having brought with me a copy of the Oneota Coop Merchandising Policy written by the OCC’s management team in May of 2008. A merchandising policy is intended to be used for buyers to ask the right questions before bringing in new products and for reevaluating existing product lines.
The guidelines we use for product selection are intended to allow enough altitude and flexibility for the Co-op to adjust to an ever-changing food industry and economy. The guidelines are also a tool to help keep Oneota ethically sound as well as economically viable. It is important to acknowledge that the practical aspects of purchasing for a full-service grocery make it impossible to fulfill any individual’s idea of “perfection.” OCC Merchandising Policy, p. 1
That’s a key paragraph. One that allows the Co-op to bring in product that meets the overall guidelines but may not satisfy the more ardent whole foods purist.
For instance, while a few members request to see more (or only) organic foods on the shelf, the Merchandising Policy does not make organic a requirement. We may. . .occasionally carry products that fall outside the following guidelines, because we try to meet the needs of as many members as is possible. OCC Merchandising Policy, p. 1
While we have not brought in Cheerios, Campbell’s soup or Budweiser, the Merchandising Policy does allow for conventional items to be sold if the situation warrants it. While no one at the Co-op is thinking of bringing in Wonder Bread, it is important to note that the Merchandising Policy recognizes that the Co-op is a business, that it must make a profit to survive and it has competition.
Selecting Products to Sell
The OCC Merchandising Policy asks buyers to consider the following criteria before bringing in a product:
1. Nutritional value, health and dietary considerations
2. Price value
3. Environmental impact
4. Social responsibility
5. Economic impact
6. Organic production and processing
In case you’re wondering what each point means, the details of each item are too lengthy to include in this article. Within point #1 alone are nearly a page of specifics that generally fall under the category of no artificial anything: colors, flavors, preservatives, stabilizers, sweeteners, etc., not only in food but in body care products as well.
It’s interesting to note the OCC Merchandising Policy provides “Exemption Criteria” meaning that certain products that don’t fit our purity standards may be sold under special circumstances because a customer requests it, or it’s seasonal, or pertaining to a holiday, or even that contain hydrogenated oil, high fructose corn syrup, or chemical preservatives. That said, the Policy lists “Banned Products” that will not be sold under any circumstances at the Co-op:
• Products containing artificial sweeteners
• Tobacco products
And a list of items the OCC does not knowingly sell:
• Irradiated products
• Products from cloned animals like milk or meat
• Product made from endangered species
• Products tested on animals
I work with buyers to maintain the integrity of the Merchandising Policy. Occasionally, lapses occur or new products arrive with undesirable ingredients that aren’t known ahead of time. This, too, is considered a part of doing business in the Merchandising Policy:
With the many thousands of products in our store, it is often not possible for us to determine detailed information about every manufacturer that supplies products to us.
If you have concerns or questions about products that you think may fall outside of our Merchandising Policy, please speak with the buyer for that department, fill out a Customer Comment card or just email me.