Experience Blog

The Ethnography of Experience

Brand Knew

Brand Knew:
Community, Identity, and Belonging at the Park Slope Coop

Guest Blog by Rebecca Tinkleman

The following is a guest blog by Rebecca Tinkleman, a graduate student in the Human Factors in Information Design MA program at Bentley University. Rebecca produced a wonderful ethnography on the Park Slope Coop, located in Brooklyn, NY. What is striking about her work is the extent to which the coop seems to violate every pretense of customer experience that we might think matters and is essential. Nevertheless, customers have a very strong loyalty to and identification with the coop. In this blog, Rebecca explores the reasons for this commitment to the coop.

Grocery stores can be exercises in customer experience excellence. The produce is at the front to create images of freshness. Music can be selected to coincide with who is shopping at that time. Labels are lined up to create a marketing symmetry of messaging and branding. End displays are constructed to draw your attention, compelling you to make that ‘impulse buy.’ Even shopping carts are being optimized for your convenience, making your routine visit that much more enjoyable (if not inviting).


All of these things can hold true when you go grocery shopping, unless of course you venture into the Park Slope Food Coop. If you live within proximity of the Park Slope neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, you have two ways to buy your groceries. In the first option, you can go to one of several standard grocery stores, where you can shop for a range of conventional and gourmet products. Or you can join the Park Slope Food Coop, an organization that requires its members to work three hours every four weeks in exchange for its inventory of discounted products, which have an emphasis on organic and healthy foods. A neighborhood staple, the coop has stood on the same spot since it was founded in 1973, growing to its current membership of more than 17,000, and making an annual $39.4 million in sales, as well as generating a fair amount of controversy and mockery. 

A 2006 column in the online magazine Chowhound described the coop as “Something between an earthy-crunchy health food haven and a Soviet-style reeducation camp.” Its extensive rules and requirements provide a heavy burden that shoppers of conventional grocery stores don’t need to adhere to. In addition to its requirements, the coop itself is frequently unpleasant to be in. Crowded, dimly lit, with overpacked aisles and no room to maneuver, the customers seem hassled and stuck. The overwhelming majority of its workforce are volunteers working their once a month shift. Therefore, customer service is uneven and dependent on an individual’s mood and commitment. On nice days huge amounts of the workforce may simply not show up, leading to further delays and back-ups. On one typical Sunday visit, I heard a woman waiting on the express line tensely yelling into her phone, saying, “No, tell him not to come here, it’s a nightmare, and they’re out of everything we need.”

And yet the coop’s members are loyal, and even passionate. One told me that the coop was one of her favorite things about living in New York City. So how does a space so frustrating, and with so many demands, achieve so well, with its 17 thousand members and its enviable sales record?

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One key reason seems to be the labor requirement itself. Members are assigned to regular work slots, on which they repeatedly see other members working in related slots. In interviews, members told me about the friends they made on their shifts. One told me “I made very lasting relationships [on my shift]... for YEARS I heard about other people’s kids or jobs or parents, they were very deep relationships.” Requirement becomes opportunity to create connection, some many mind so sorely lacking in today’s world.

Additionally, members reported a professional pride in the expertise they developed in mundane roles, feeling a sense of ownership in how quickly they could check out shoppers in a cashier line or wrap cheese segments for buyers. Purpose found not in profession, but in service to other community members. Pride found in contribution to others, and in identity with the coop itself. It is one group, one family, born in the packed aisle that are too narrow to let shopping carts neatly pass, whose lighting only moderately illuminates the stacked boxes of goods, and whose members would never shop anywhere else.

One shopper contrasted the messy but personal experience of shopping in the cooperative favorably with shopping in a grocery store, telling me that “I get really miserable when I have to shop at Key Food, the bright lights, horrible vegetables, sometimes going to the food coop just cheers me up. It doesn’t feel like a meaningless, modern, isolated experience, there’s all this noise and hubbub of people asking stupid questions on the intercom, it feels much more communal.” Both this member and others related the easy conversations they would have with strangers inside the coop. In a city as continually impersonal as New York, the continual interactions and common experiences of the coop offer, at least for some people, an alternative space for community.

DNAinfo/Amy Zimmer

DNAinfo/Amy Zimmer

By conventional logic (and much rigorous professional study), retail spaces should cater to their customers, providing comfort and boutique experiences to incentivize spending. Yet the Park Slope Coop offers a counterpoint, in which much is demanded of customers, who in exchange feel more committed to the organization.

Experience design ultimately comes down to brand loyalty, how much commitment does a customer have to the company and its products. Sociologically speaking, we know that group belonging fosters greater sense of commitment, trust, purpose, and identity. The Park Slope Food Coop demonstrates that achieving this becomes experience beyond the physical space, and that customers will put up with a lot of inconvenience in order to feel like they belong.