Why Mountain Equipment Co-Op may be risking a CX comeuppance

The furor over the firm's sale shows the unique nature of customer experience as it is understood by those who are also members

All I wanted was a backpack. I found it, and it seemed perfect for my purposes, but when I got to the checkout at Mountain Equipment Co-Op I found out I needed to offer more than my credit card.

“You’re not a member? You have to be a member,” the cashier gently explained, showing me the process to sign up, pay annual dues (I think it was $5) but also to stay connected to what happened at the retailer and vote on various issues, such as board elections, when the time came.

It all seemed like a lot to ask, just to buy a backpack. I didn’t recognize it for the customer experience it was — a chance to not only have a transactional relationship with a retailer but a meaningful voice in how it evolved as an organization.

I don’t use the word “meaningful” loosely, because it’s at the heart of a dispute between Mountain Equipment Co-Op (MEC) and the more than five million members across Canada who have bought into the experience it offers.

As reported in the Vancouver Sun and elsewhere, MEC announced a deal recently whereby its assets would be acquired by an L.A.-based private investment firm. This was blamed largely on the impact of the pandemic, though there have apparently been financial problems similar to those facing many others in the retail sector.

Whereas loyal customers might simply frown at their favourite brand being taken over by a third party, however, the MEC deal has triggered a petition on Change.org to cancel the deal and have what it calls open, fair and democratic board elections. As of this writing, the petition had already almost reached its goal of 15,000 signatures.

“The MEC Board of Directors has approved a deal for the Co-ops assets to be acquired by a private investor, without the permission of the MEC membership, or any kind of meaningful consultation,” the petition says.

I can’t verify whether that’s true, or what “meaningful” would actually mean in a case like this. However it seems pretty clear that MEC’s customer experience is not limited to the products and services it sells but encompasses the feeling of belonging and input that some of its members expected to have.

If members feel shut out of a decision that could determine much of the retailer’s future, it doesn’t mean they might stop shopping there. It could also create negative sentiment that makes signing on new members — and even using the membership as a higher order of brand promise than one made by a more conventional provider of outdoor gear — far more difficult to do.

Co-ops are certainly unusual in the retail space (though REI would be an equivalent in the U.S.), but surely that has to be part of their appeal: that your customer journey is one in which you see yourself as an extension of the brand itself. The voice of the customer, in this case, should theoretically be heard much louder than, I don’t know, being a customer of Coleman or something.

How MEC responds to this petition — the ultimate form of customer feedback — could be as critical to its survival as selling to the private investment firm. Those running it could say they had no choice. The problem is that customers — even if they agreed to become members — always do.

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