Farewell, Bike Discount at Rainbow Grocery….

The only thing sadder than biking in the rain is biking in the rain without a ten percent discount.

Was it just a few months ago that the Rainbow Grocery Cooperative declared an end to coupon day? It was. But this week, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition announced that, as of January 1, 2012, Rainbow would be ending its discount for SFBC members. 2012 is also the year that the world will end, according to some interpretations of the Mayan calendar. Coincidence?

Most die-hard everyday Rainbow customers had already learned to avoid the store on coupon day. Who needed to jostle elbows with beatific hippie families in front of the bulk bins? Who needed to wait in line for 20 minutes, quietly feeling insignificant in comparison to the ruthlessly healthy purchases of other shoppers, or speculating as to lifestyle choices of the heaping cart in front of you, piled high with legumes, coconut butter and strange-looking massage devices?

A membership with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition got anyone 10 percent off on any day they remembered to actually show their card to the cashier. Membership was $35 a year at the low end of the year — sometimes even cheaper. A few weeks of grocery shopping and one had easily made back one’s self-interested investment in bicycle advocacy.

But signs that things have been souring with the bike discount have been evident for a while. In the early days, simply saying you were a member was enough. Then cashiers began checking cards. Then cashiers began demanding photo ID.

“Do people ever try to fake the SFBC discount?” I once asked the man scrutinizing my membership card like a cranky bouncer outside of a nightclub. “ALL THE TIME,” he said, darkly.

“Funny,” I said. “SFBC membership is really easy to get.”

“What I’ve heard,” he said, “is that since we started the discount, their membership has been through the roof.”

SFBC’s membership has risen significantly since 2008 — from 10,000 to 12,000. This despite the fact that for much of that time, the actual pro-cyclist changes to the city’s infrastructure that the SFBC had once regularly delivered via lobbying were at a complete standstill, due to a lawsuit filed against the Citywide Bike Plan.

“Our goal with the discount was to help broaden the membership of the SFBC,” says Marcus, who handles public relations for the cooperative. The thing that ultimately drove the decision to eliminate the discount, he says, was when the SFBC realized how much money Rainbow was giving away through the discount in relation to how much the SFBC was getting through signing up new members. “They said, ‘Wow. If you just gave that to us, just think of how much more we could do for cycling in the city,'” recalls Marcus.

How much money? Marcus is uncomfortable talking about that. “A lotta money,” he says. “Within the tens of thousands.” As discounts go, it was second only to the store’s senior discount. Which customers are also notorious for trying to bluff their way into. “They’ll say things like, ‘I’m buying these groceries for my mom. But she’s at home,'” says Marcus.

Another rationale behind the discount, Marcus says, was to alleviate Rainbow’s parking crunch. The store did wind up having to double the number of bike racks in its space, but it’s still a struggle to find a spot. And while the SFBC and occasional Rainbow cashiers did maintain that people needed to ride their bikes to the store to use the discount, Marcus says that biking to the store — or even biking, period — was never a requirement. “It was never about having to show your U-lock or your helmet or whatever. It was really just about broadening their membership.”

The meeting about eliminating the bicycle discount was a contentious one, Marcus says, but the issue was ultimately decided by a vote. How close was the vote? He won’t say. The store is still tackling other ways it might promote cycling — donating directly to the SFBC, and setting up a way for customers to borrow bicycle trailers to transport large loads of groceries.

Meanwhile, the injunction against the Citywide Bike Plan was lifted in August 2010. Even before then, Valencia Street was bristling with new bicycle racks, and new programs like Pavement to Parks were taking spaces formerly reserved for cars and making them more convenient for cyclists and pedestrians.

So, it’s the end of an era. More bike racks on the street, fewer discounts on bamboo cutting boards. Will Rainbow, the place where almost all the city’s subcultures — the foodies, the yuppies, the yoga instructors, the vitamin nuts, the anarchists, the socialists, the capitalists, the cheese-obsessed, the bulk-bin shopping grandmas — collide, be a madhouse come December, when all the bicycle people see the end on the horizon? Will the aisles be crowded with desperate people in clip-on shoes? We shall wait and see.

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17 Comments

  1. Heather Smith Post author

    Jym,

    I contacted Leah Shahum yesterday and today, and she didn’t have any comment. I told her that when she, or anyone else at SFBC does, that we’re happy to add that to the article.

  2. So, if this is true: “The thing that ultimately drove the decision to eliminate the discount…was when the SFBC realized how much money Rainbow was giving away through the discount in relation to how much the SFBC was getting through signing up new members. “They said, ‘Wow. If you just gave that to us, just think of how much more we could do for cycling in the city,’”…
    Does this mean the SFBC encouraged Rainbow to discontinue a very awesome membership perk?
    If Rainbow is now donating the sum of money directly to the SFBC that it was (in essence) giving away through the discount, with the encouragement and knowledge of the SFBC (which is what the above quote suggests) then a major pox on both of them. The SFBC doesnt “owe” it’s members anything,except solid advocacy and good leadership (and I really appreciate Leah Shamhum on both counts) but they do specifically advertise their membership with the idea of discounts from local, like-minded vendors. I don’t know. In tough times, every penny counts and this back room dealing leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
    I bike to Rainbow always. I really like shopping there, but without the discount? Not so much. I can go to Safeway. Similarly, I don’t need to maintain an active membership with the SFBC to use the bike lanes. They’re free.

    • nhr

      Come-on, SFBC is being responsible here once they realized that the “membership perk” that you describe is worth many times more than the cost of membership itself. That is not an equitable way to raise funds for a non-profit. I’ve been an SFBC member for years and a faithful rainbow grocery customer and while it will suck to lose the money I think it was kind of an egregious give-away. I would prefer the money go directly to SFBC. Definitely. They do a lot of good.

      A membership benefit should be commensurate with the cost of membership not an unlimited giveway… So for $35 I could get what $1,000 worth of discounts if I shop enough?

  3. Lisa S.

    I’m confused as to why a Rainbow ‘spokesperson’ is so inaccurate. Rainbow initiated the end of the discount and the entire co-op voted on it – so how is the SFBC being blamed for this? It seems like the SFBC is doing fine without Rainbow, but they don’t seem like the type of membership-savvy organization to look a gift horse (aka Rainbow) in the mouth. This reads like some pretty weak reporting.

    • Actually- the entire co-op didnt vote against it. I know of at least one co op member who did not-who knows how many other there were.

      If the story as reported is incorrect- and SFBC did not encourage Rainbow to stop the discount- that should be made clear. Because this article implies that.

  4. could you report the full name of your source ‘Mason’. I work at Rainbow and am not familiar with anyone who works there with that first or last name.
    Thanks.

  5. Maureen

    I don’t like this one bit. I bike to Rainbow 1-2/week. I need that discount. I’m a loyal Rainbow customer and a cheerleader of the SFBC. Why are you guys screwing me???

    • nhr

      they’re not screwing you. Lets not be dramatic. They’re cutting off a benefit. That 10% could add up to more than $500 a year. Is that fair? You spent $35 on a membership fee and gett $500 a year in benefits? How is that fair? I’m an SFBC member as well and a weekly Rainbow shopper and while I hate to lose it I totally understand why they would end this.

  6. duboce and valencia

    I have an SFBC membership and even with the discount Rainbow is too expensive. This will probably kill my patronage for good.

    By comparison, the Olympia Food Co-op in my former home of Olympia WA was a central low income resource. They made good local food available to everyone. They also sold meat, but not alcohol which makes a whole lot more sense to me.

    I’m not trying to say unkind things about Rainbow, they’re great, just that they’re patronage isn’t living paycheck to paycheck like most of us and probably won’t be effected by axing a discount like other places that extend themselves to low income clientele would be.

    • nhr

      Believe me they won’t miss your (or my) patronage. Rainbow is +$50 Million a year business. They do VERY well financially.

  7. Heather Smith Post author

    Thank you all for writing in: From what I’ve heard, the decision to not sell meat, and to continue selling alcohol are among the most profound differences within Rainbow’s own worker/owners. I would be extremely surprised if there weren’t similar debates over ending the SFBC discount. SFBC still hasn’t commented on the story.

    In this town there are some very wealthy cyclists. Transportation doesn’t necessarily correlate to income here, the way that it does in other areas. And Rainbow does take food stamps, and has for years.

  8. David Hooper

    Rainbow is much less expensive than Bi-Rite or Whole Foods. When a member of the Bike Coalition, I drove my car. I drive now and run five errands in one afternoon. I don’t even own a bike. And now, I’m a senior: 10% off at all times.

    • It isn’t clear to me why Rainbow doesn’t just become a co-op-that is a membership based grocery, like the Davis or Arcata Co-op. Then whatever the SFBC did or didn’t do wouldn’t matter.

      • nhr

        because they would be giving away a great business. Rainbow brings in serious money and disburses it to its member-workers. If they diluted that by the thousands of rainbow shoppers the gravy train would be over…

  9. agent_x

    I walk to rainbow coop. Where’s my discount?

    Good to see this discriminatory and wholly unfair “discounting” has been discontinued.

    What about us poor pedestrians, stuck between emission-belching cars and self-aggrandizing bike dicks?

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