The Ins & Outs of Sourcing Local

If you keep an eye out for new local products when shopping, you may have already noticed that just about everywhere you look in-store you’ll see at least one from a local supplier. But how do they make it to our shelves? Our Merchandising Manager Joe sheds some light on the complexities of sourcing local in this Q&A.

How do you bring in new local products?

“The two best routes for discovering them are via vendor applications and product requests. I reply to vendor applications, our buyers respond to product requests, and we keep a log of both so we can give the decision proper weight if multiple customers request a certain brand. Aside from those processes, I seek out new vendors myself when I reset sections and recognize a need for more local. We do our best to have local options in every category, though this isn’t always possible or practical (like bulk nuts and fresh tropical fruit). We also work with Co-op Partners Warehouse, a cooperative wholesaler in the Twin Cities, that does a great job of bringing in regional products. And we rely heavily on word-of-mouth. It’s a safe bet that carrying the products our neighbors are producing will be successful here; we have found that hyperlocal businesses especially already have support within our community, so having their products on our shelves any day of the week is a win for everybody.”

Do new local vendors have to meet certain criteria?

“Being a food co-op means we strive to serve our community as a whole. We attract customers under every label imaginable, as well as those beyond labeling, and we seek to accommodate all on the same shelves. We keep this dynamic in mind when sourcing, and we try to provide as many options in each category as we have preferences. For this reason, I don’t set strict barriers on a product’s approval if my research leads me to believe our community would support it, unless the product is contradicting our Ends or Product Guidelines. We do prioritize products that align well with our Ends, and it’s the highest fulfillment of my work to bring high-quality local food to a customer base that’s eager for it. Overall though, I keep open ears and an open mind to our customers’ needs.”

How does pricing factor into sourcing local? And do you employ creative tactics to ensure they are competitively priced?

“Some local categories are tougher to price than others, especially when compared to the national brands our competitors also carry. The economies of scale involved in smaller operations such as ours demand a strategic approach to pricing, and we are always as careful as we can be when pricing local products so they are approachable—nobody wins if local products’ prices are too high. Specifically, we are more generous about putting local items on sale without requesting a discount from suppliers, and we often give local products preferential locations at shelf so customers see them first. We also round local prices down to make them attractive when we can, and we absorb cost increases on local products more readily than on national brands.”

What happens when local vendors offer the same products?

“We often talk to local suppliers who have a product that would do well here, but we already carry one with similar characteristics, price, and quality. This especially happens with Meat and Produce growers who work to bring their wonderful products to market only to find out we already have long-standing relationships. It can be difficult to grow a new tomato, for instance, that’s just different enough to not compete with what we already stock, and this is the crux of the problem with many fledgling producers: differentiation. We have worked to expand our relationships with local producers in recent years to add value to our sets without stealing business from other producers by finding niche products, such as 100% grass-fed lamb from Smit Family Farm, and by getting creative to help a supplier meet a need, such as selling discounted pork bundles from Deutsch Family Farm or liquidating a clearance bin of winter squash for Prindle Family Farm when their crop didn’t meet their distributor’s standards. All too often, we have to decide between suppliers when two products are so alike they would compete, but sometimes we do decide having multiple is a good thing, like with grass-fed beef or local honey. Variety means resiliency, so in certain categories, we allow for some in-fighting!”

How can local vendors keep their products on the shelf long-term?

“If we have products we’re invested in carrying but they aren’t selling, we put them on special displays so our customers notice them, we heavily advertise them, we give them a more prominent spot on the shelf if possible, and we even lower prices if we’re able to. If customers still aren’t interested, then we have to discontinue items, especially if they are nearing their expiration date or supply is inconsistent. Our buyers are in tune with how well each of the items they purchase sell, so we continuously address slow-movers and adjust our product selection according to trends, shopping habits, and product availability. I would say the best plan for a local vendor to keep their products on our shelves would be to remain in consistent supply, be reliable about communication with us, and attend events to build brand awareness and connect with our community in person. Product innovation is always helpful, too! Customers love to see something new from their favorite brands.”

This article was originally published in the September/October 2021 issue of our bi-monthly newsletter, The Morsel. If you’d like to read more stories like this one and stay up to date on the latest co-op news and events, pick up a print copy in-store on your next grocery run or find more news on our website here.

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