Building a Foundation for Co-op Programs

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From #105, March-April 2003

Building a Foundation for Co-op Programs

B Y   R O B Y N N   S H R A D E R Building Foundation illustration

National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA) began the new year with significant progress in three important areas.

Joint planning with regional executive directors

In early January, the executive directors of the regional Cooperative Grocers Associations (CGAs) and NCGA met to align our work and plans for 2003, addressing a number of issues related to national initiatives and common regional objectives. This was notable in that for the first time in our NCGA collaborative history nearly all of the member CGAs have staff dedicated to meeting the objectives of their associations. Some of these staff positions were newly created last year, so this was our first opportunity to come together as a team to address our work and create efficiencies in dealing with the challenges faced by all.

We laid out concrete action plans in a variety of areas, including CAP (Co-op Advantage Program), the Co-op brand project, national purchasing of value-added business services (insurance packages, payroll processing, paper supplies, inventory services, etc.), communications throughout our system, and how to support the NCGA board’s pursuit of potential national purchasing of core cost of goods. Regional and national work plans were broken into five key areas: purchasing, operational improvements, marketing, leadership, and communications. These areas were compared to best identify opportunities for shared development of programs and to reduce redundancies. Ideas were hatched about how to best align the various regions in a national planning process, which we will be presenting to our respective boards and members for consideration and feedback.

All participants were enthusiastically pleased with the work we accomplished in a short time and our performance against the meeting objectives. This group, made up of Dave Blackburn, Peg Nolan, Corinne Shindelar, Karen Zimbelman and myself, left the meeting with a team spirit and commitment to supporting each other in our work and sharing the responsibilities for addressing common needs throughout our system. Many thanks to the National Cooperative Bank for hosting our meeting and providing invaluable facilitation by Annie Donovan. We have scheduled our next meeting for June 2003.

Consumer testing results

The findings from the consumer research recently conducted for NCGA in New Hampshire and Seattle are in hand. Many thanks to Hanover Co-op and PCC Natural Markets for partnering with us in this project, of benefit to all NCGA member stores.

This was a qualitative study, using ethnographic techniques designed to draw out the values and belief systems that drive consumer shopping behavior while filtering out the aspirational elements of what consumers will typically report about their attitudes toward wellness. This research provides a comprehensive view of many elements of consumer shopping behavior, within a context of co-op members as well as those who are not yet members.

Presentations on the full report are scheduled at the first quarter CGA meetings to facilitate understanding and discussion of these findings. This is also notable, since for the first time in our history each region will have benefit of a personal presentation and discussion of an important initiative within a very short period of time. This is made possible by a team approach among marketing savvy individuals, formed from our membership, who are working with me to advise the branding project.

We asked co-op members and customers to tell us what they thought. It is now our job to take what we learned and use it effectively to articulate messages and a positioning that considers what they said, while enhancing it with what we have not said well enough to date. The consumers told us many things that they appreciated about us in contrast to our competition. We will focus on those and on doing better at interweaving the things we want them to appreciate.

When we test again in a few years, we hope that they report, because of our efforts, an embrace of some new concepts that did not come out in this round. It is time to make our marketing efforts a better strategic fit with where the consumer is today. We co-ops as a movement have not done this to date — i.e., worked in concert with each other from a consumer-centered research platform. This is a great opportunity and one that we can take in measured, deliberate steps. Please look for more information about next steps by the time of the CCMA conference in June 2003.

Pursuit of structure options to enable national purchasing

The NCGA board recently decided to seek outside expertise in determining the best plan to integrate our regional and national operating structures into the most effective system for the future. The board has made the pursuit of a national purchasing program the top priority for NCGA this year and recognizes that such a program would require adjustments to the way we now operate, with varying economic and human resource models in our regions.

The board recently delegated responsibility to me and our board advisor, Corinne Shindelar, to pursue outside expertise as needed and present options to consider. Corinne and I will bring forth specific proposals that assess the current systems and operations at work and define appropriate solutions for more integration.

NCGA believes that the pursuit of national purchasing, particularly core cost of goods, has dramatic potential to benefit our stores while also carrying a significant opportunity cost for inaction. We further feel that this initiative is worth considering no matter what adjustments are needed to our national operating structure for implementation. We plan to do this in cooperation with all members, working from informed, strategic options presented from our research. We look forward to the results and to the important discussion around this next step in our collaborative evolution. Steps that we take now, while our national system is still new, will leave us better poised for future success.

 

Robynn Shrader is executive director of the National Cooperative Grocers Association ([email protected]).

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See other articles from this issue: #105 March - April - 2003