Year founded: 1973
Member equity: $400
Number of members: 9,400
Number of employees: 200
Locations: six total, including a farmer’s market and one wellness and pet store
When the only grocery store in Ambler, Pennsylvania closed, it galvanized the town of 6,500 people into action. Rather than recreate the former grocery store’s approach to conventional retailing, though, they explored launching a food co-op that would focus on a variety of products, including natural and organic. Ambler is a small town near Philadelphia in the midst of a Main Street resurgence. Having a locally-owned, locally-sourced food market felt like the right fit for the community.
The co-op effort spurred an awakening among townspeople eager for healthy choices. Like all startups, the co-op addressed the challenges of organizing the community effort. After 5 years focused on the startup, the Ambler Food Co-op turned to its neighbor Weavers Way, an established and more highly-resourced food co-op in nearby Philadelphia, to work together to leverage their assets to open the doors to their co-op. In 2016, Ambler merged with Weavers Way, and opened in the fall of 2017.
The merger brought many questions to the forefront for both organizations. How do you welcome a new community into a long-established business? How do you reach out to people unfamiliar with the co-op? What do you say to people about the co-op and its impact?
Kathleen Casey is the co-op development manager at Weavers Way, and was a leader in the Ambler startup effort. She found that the merger talks around the startup injected a lot of energy into co-op communication efforts—a definite benefit to both Weavers Way and Ambler. “A startup is all about outreach. You have no building, no nothing, so you must be creative. We pushed ourselves to create new pathways for communicating with people.”
Casey said that they didn’t just rely on the media to get the word out or tell their story. “We had a lot of one-on-one conversations.” They did tabling, festivals, community housing and senior living facilities, and a lot of wellness expos. “When we contemplated the merger, we invited our members to shop the Weavers Way stores to share with them what having a co-op would be like in their community.”
Crystal Pang is the Weavers Way director of marketing and community relations, and she said that having a positive personal experience with the co-op is an important aspect of any communication effort. For example, they’ve revived their store tours to engage people on several levels. “It allows us to tell the story of the co-op and take questions. We talk about the cooperative and the products. It’s been an important tactic for us.”
Pang found that the merger offered a lot of new opportunity to have conversations with people about their perceptions of the co-op, too. “There were a lot of misconceptions, so they were excellent conversations to have. We had the opportunity to share that we have a viable locally-owned grocery store. Even though we’ve been open since 1973, there was still low awareness among some groups in some areas about who we are.”
The merger and opening the new store in Ambler has also led to exponential growth in new memberships—a 40% uptick—a clear demonstration that their outreach efforts are working. “Bringing people together and giving them a reason to come to any of our stores has helped create a stronger emotional connection,” Pang said. Currently their events and workshop calendar is packed with opportunities for engagement. “We have things going on at least four days a week, and we also do traditional marketing like regular emails, newsletters, PR and social media, so our story stays top-of-mind.”
“We’ve adopted a startup mentality,” said Casey, in that Weavers Way is continually seeking ways to keep people informed and engaged. It’s been win-win for both. The startup gained more resources and expertise with the merger to open, and the established co-op got more members and a shot of entrepreneurial momentum to launch the co-op into a new community. Casey added, “Coming together and partnering in these ways can be a really strong strategy for co-ops.”
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