The little shop sits in a teeming hub of plazas, convenience stores, and fast food joints not far from the interstate. It’s a chain store, with hundreds like it in more than 30 states. I can see why it’s popular. It’s a fun place, with a great vibe. The atmosphere gives off the air of a sort of multimedia, pop-culture boutique.
One morning this past weekend, I took my little girl there to look at the plush toys. Not far from where we were poking around, a woman was checking out. She was a kind, candid woman, with a small purchase. The cashier, a cheerful man with a pleasant, how-may-I-help-you voice, smiled and greeted her, then asked if she was a member of the store’s loyalty program.
The woman said no. The cashier asked if she would like to apply, and she said no again. The cashier explained the process. Customers pay a yearly fee, and get discounts on purchases. He encouraged her to reconsider, and gently, yet persistently, pushed the benefits of the program.
Then things got interesting.
The woman told the man she appreciated he was just trying to do his job. But she said she was tired of stores pressuring her about this sort of thing. Once again, she said she wasn’t interested.
The cashier, undeterred, challenged her. He wanted to know if she was a member of any other business in the area. He mentioned one by name, and she said she wasn’t a member. Then he said, “How about the Hanover Co-op?”
The woman said she was a Co-op member, but that was different. “It’s the exact same thing,” the cashier responded. The two went back and forth, and the woman left. The cashier continued to emphasize his point as the customer walked out the door.
I don’t think it’s ever been so hard for me to bite my tongue. Ultimately, I didn’t feel like it was my place to interject on the conversation. (I know; it wasn’t my place to listen in, either!) So I took the experience as a gift. Good fodder for a blog post, I thought.
The takeaway is this: The customer was right. The cashier, surely well-intentioned and just trying to do a good job, couldn’t have been more wrong.
The Upper Valley is full of co-ops and credit unions. (A credit union is a cooperatively owned bank.) Thousands of people in our area are members of a cooperative business.
Membership in a co-op is nothing like the ubiquitous loyalty programs offered by chain stores. To understand the gulf between the two is to understand the difference between cooperatives and corporations.
A co-op is a democratically run business owned by the people who use its services. Members are owners. These member-owners vote in board elections and have a say in how the business is run. Sometimes they get member benefits and perks, such as invitations to special events and discounts on products. The goal of the cooperative business is to serve a community need rather than to maximize profit. This is why, more often than not, co-ops are locally owned.
A corporation is typically owned by a single individual or family or a small group of investors. Rarely is the business locally owned. The entity has one goal: to maximize profits for one person or a small group of people.
There is nothing wrong with this, of course. I shop at chain stores, too. But they aren’t co-ops. Their loyalty programs and other profit-driven incentives are nothing like the community benefit generated by people coming together to own a cooperative. Our Co-op is owned by thousands of people, most of them here in the Upper Valley. The chain store I visited is owned by one wealthy man and his family more than 1,200 miles away.
My little girl and I left the store. It was a mild day and the sun was shining. It was a great day to buzz around the Upper Valley, giving thanks for all the things that make it so special. My daughter wanted to go for a little drive, so we took the back way home. We passed two co-ops and a credit union along the way.
Above, a cooperative provides a community with the goods and services that it needs. Our Co-op provides food, such as this colorful local produce grown by our friends at Root 5 Farm in Fairlee, Vt.