The value of a co-op is not its size, but how well it serves its community. A small food co-op (under $2M annual sales), especially one in a smaller town like Neighborhood Co-op Grocery in Carbondale, Ill., can have a wider sphere of influence than its larger, urban counterparts because it can capture a larger portion of its community’s interest and patronage. Small food co-ops in urban locales, like People’s Food Co-op in Portland, Ore. often fill a niche by being a strong neighborhood enterprise supported by a committed core of members.
Not being limited by size is the impetus behind a recent groundswell of small co-op developments around the country. What small food co-ops might lack in certain resources, whether they are rural or urban, they more than make up for in their potential to transform neighborhoods and communities.
Bill Gessner has made thousands of food co-op visits over the years during his tenure as a co-op development expert. “It doesn’t matter if the store is large or small, when you walk in, you can sense the vitality level of a co-op quickly,” he said. Tapping into and expanding this X-factor of “influence” is the opportunity and challenge facing today’s small co-op operations. More and more small cooperators are seeking smart strategies to take better advantage of their position of influence.
Gessner said a “good small store” is defined by its leadership. “Leadership that’s inclusive and team- and community-building.” This takes some expertise and practice, but Gessner believes a co-op’s leadership ability is a critical element of small co-op success.
Sometimes the nature of a small food co-op operation demands its managers do everything: stocking, ordering, and managing staff. Gessner recognizes managers can get mired in day-to-day concerns that may hold back long term operational development. Essential conversations between board and management about the co-op’s future never happen when boards don’t look beyond operations either. Thus a co-op’s leadership could fail to reach out to those in their geographic and co-op communities, losing the support and momentum community involvement imparts.
“ Getting clear on your core values enables you to take them with you in a changing world,” said Gessner. “If you can’t articulate them then you get resistance and entrenchment. Those that practice isolation disappear.”
Bigger is not better in itself. Success for any operation, large or small, is its ability to bring people together to shape a vision.
“ Small stores have a great opportunity to have a significant impact if they choose to,” said Mel Braverman, co-op operations specialist. “But you have to plan for it.”
How does a small food cooperator get good information and planning assistance, especially if funds are limited? Even with a tiny budget, a co-op can get a scholarship to the Consumer Cooperative Managers Association conference (CCMA), a subscription to Cooperative Grocer magazine for every board member and manager, and become a member of the online peer resource Cooperative Grocers Information Network (CGIN) that shares operational and marketing materials.
A co-op can also join other food co-ops around the country in getting benchmarking information with Common Cooperative Financial Statements (CoCoFiSt) and joining the National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA) for purchasing advantages. CoCoFiSt consultant Walden Swanson said, “CoCoFiSt is a good way to network with other co-op managers and compare results.”
During 2004, CDS worked with six small food co-ops in rural Minnesota to obtain funds from the USDA’s Rural Business Enterprise Grant program to use for consulting services. The funds were provided by USDA to strengthen business and jobs in rural Minnesota. Just Food Co-op in Northfield, MOMS in Cambridge, Bluff Country Co-op in Winona, St. Peter Co-op in St. Peter, Cook County Co-op in Grand Marais and Wintergreen Co-op in Albert Lea received a total of $41,750 in federal funds; each of the co-ops provided matching funds from their own resources. Consulting services provided by CDS have included board training, market assessment and operational improvement planning.
According to Tom Guettler, Northcountry Development Fund’s director of resource development, “CoCoFiSt is the best way for a small co-op retailer to get involved. It’s an excellent resource.” CoCoFiSt has helped countless co-ops close the gap on the bottom line to become more efficient and profitable—no matter the co-op’s size. Many co-ops find CoCoFiSt pays for itself and then some.
Growth in sales is always good indicator of co-op vitality, but not the only one that allows cooperators to evaluate their success. Growth in membership and monitoring and reporting the number of events sponsored by the co-op each year is something small co-ops can do to measure their activity in the community.
“ Making money is a means to an end,” Braverman said. “You can use the co-op’s assets to make a bigger impact.”
Overall, Braverman suggests looking at training and education as “an investment not an expense. The payback is in the implementation.” By connecting with other cooperators, planning for the future, and gaining the benefits of operational efficiencies, the co-op can achieve its mission and expand its sphere of influence by using its resources to give back to its community.
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