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There was a good piece the other day on about West Virginia’s Mountain People's Market Co-op, which has been looking at declining sales for more than a year, at least in part because of increased competition from new stores such as a Kroger with a large natural foods selection.

According to the co-op’s new general manager, C. Lee Martinec, differentiation more than ever will be the key to survival. The story says that the co-op “is going to stop giving shelf space to things that competitors sell for less. They are going to stock more things big stores can't or won't sell such as bulk foods, specialty items and locally - produced vegetables, meat, eggs and cheese. They're going to continue to offer personalized customer service.” And, the co-op plans “to expand its gluten-free products and will continue to sell miso and West Virginia-made Spring Creek Tofu and the increasingly popular Kombucha tea.”

All of these tactics are going to be critical for the co-op to survive, but none so important as the continued buy-in of local consumers, who, if they pay a $30 annual membership fee, not only get discounts and profit-sharing, but also get a say in how the co-op is run.

KC's View:
I don't have a co-op near me, at least not to my knowledge, so I have limited personal experience with the concept. But people I know who belong to co-ops swear by the experience, saying that the prices are better and the experience more relevant to what they want out of a food store.

Still, it has to be tough going at a time when mainstream supermarkets have sort of discovered that the things that made co-ops unique – especially things like local produce – can also serve as marketing tools for them. Which only means that the co-ops have to work harder and be smarter and more innovative, I suppose.