Over the past month, I have exponentially increased my visits to Whole Foods. I love Whole Foods – the displays of picture perfect produce, the fish, who seem to have jumped onto their icy beds directly from the sea, so much food that seems like dairy but does not involve an actual cow. I have been there more than usual lately because I recently completed the Whole30, and it seems I needed a lot of new condiments to disguise the fact that I was eating eggs, kale or avocadoes at pretty much every meal.
I could spend hours at Whole Foods – but as anyone who has children can tell you, grocery shopping is torture to their young souls, and therefore I evaluate any need to procure food with convenience. Whole Foods offers me an amazing sensory experience, but before I get through the doors I have to wait for one of the 14 parking spaces to open up, and I know a line of at least 12 people will precede me at checkout. So I read with interest about some of the shifts going on at Whole Foods currently, mainly due to people like me who love the idea of it, but sometimes need to buy truly horrible things like aluminum foil and lemonade mix and therefore end up shopping at the neighborhood store that has a decent line of organic products. Even my 7-11 has organic milk, the discovery of which has been life changing.
I was recently asked how the association of the future needs to act, and I think grocery stores are a fair point of comparison – not just in terms of what they are offering, but how we consume their services. When I don’t have my kids in tow, walking around Whole Foods staring dreamily at seven types of fresh mozzarella is something I honestly enjoy. Going into local Safeway – less fabulous for sure, but with ample parking – to grab our supply of frozen waffles, bananas and tortillas is the usual go-to. And in a pinch, I can pull up to the door and hand my 12 year old a $5 bill to run in and grab milk so his younger sibling won’t have a meltdown over milk-less cereal the next morning. People may want the same things, but have different amounts of time to assess (and obsess about) quality or may need it in a more “easy open” package. Many nonprofit organizations still view membership and programs as a binary option – you either are or you aren’t – without fully exploring how and when people want or need the unique value they offer.
And of course, many organizations used to be Whole Foods – they were the only group offering a certain kind of information, and therefore they could charge a premium for that service. With more competing groups and the flattening of information access by the internet, the more nimble have moved to a Safeway or even convenience store model, with interesting results. For example, we helped our client, Electronic Retailing Association, add “pop-up” speakeasy events to connect with members at industry gatherings to give people an easy, informal way to connect with the association beyond their own gathering for 3,500 people each fall. International Technology Law Association took a break from their panel format and introduced an interactive workshop (with jumbo-sized sticky notes, no less).
My Whole30 experience is over, and as a result, my more regular visits to Whole Foods are as well – but there is no question that I am probably a more demanding consumer at my neighborhood store as a result, and I am more keenly aware of the tradeoffs. We need to make sure our client organizations are similarly showcasing their value and communities on an ongoing basis, so that our stakeholders are aware of what they get when they engage – and what they may miss out on if they do not.
Erin Fuller is the president of association management and consulting at MCI USA, and missed pasta and wine a lot during the Whole30 – but developed a deep love of spaghetti squash. Her oldest son could spend 45 minutes (and the same amount of dollars) selecting bath products at Whole Foods – don’t tell his friends.