Kootenay Thrives on Local and Organic

Kootenay Country Store Cooperative is the heart of Nelson, British Columbia. What began more than thirty years ago as a buying club with a few member families has turned into the community's member-owned one-stop shopping experience, now grown to over $4,700,000 in annual sales.

With a population of under 10,000, Nelson may seem an unlikely location for such success, but according to (retiring) co-op board chair Fred Easton, the blend of natural products carried by the store appeals to "a lot of alternative lifestyle people who will pay for these products." He must be right; there are about 6,000 current members.

Located in a heritage building on Nelson's main street, Kootenay Co-op has 4,800 square feet of retail space, which includes a full service deli and 400 square feet dedicated to supplements. But the most striking feature of the store, and a probable reason for its success, is the produce section.

Featuring a 40' cooler and about 1,000 square feet of floor space, the produce section accounts for approximately 21% of the store's sales. The section staff take great pride in the quality of their produce and work closely with local growers to ensure premium local product is always available.

Their love of the fruits and vegetables in their care is evidenced by the lush and lavish displays -- overflowing baskets of red peppers, mountains of squash, fields of greens interspersed with brilliant red radishes or beets -- a feast for the eyes. And there is often a self-serve demo station set up to tantalize your taste buds.

Why is Kootenay Co-op so successful?

Kootenay Co-op is so successful because of its long term, unwavering commitment to a healthy environment -- a commitment realized through carrying organic products and bulk products, recycling, and supporting local production.

Since the summer of 1988 the co-op has carried predominately organic produce and has "done without" when organic was not available. By strengthening this policy, and an on-going commitment to education about the benefits of organics, the co-op built both customer confidence and loyalty.

At that time, there was no organic certification available locally, so the co-op staff worked closely with local growers and developed a system of farm visits, with an affidavit for growers to sign.

With ongoing support from the staff, local growers have responded by growing diverse crops and additional quantities. During the fall, 75% of the high quality produce in the store is local, with another 20% from elsewhere in British Columbia.

A study done by Horizon Distributors shows that about 8% of the local market regularly spends its food dollars on organic foods, about four times the national average. This is certainly attributable to the excellent education and product selection at Kootenay Co-op.

Co-op staff have also worked with value-added producers to develop, package and promote new products. In the deli and on the shelves are products from more than thirty small businesses that have developed in the region with the co-op's support. Many of these businesses provide a livelihood for people who would otherwise be unable to remain in the area due to a lack of employment opportunities. With almost forty employees and the large number of small businesses it supports, Kootenay Co-op is a vital part of the local economy.

History

Kootenay Co-op grew out of the union of several multi-family buying clubs in the early 1970s. In 1975, the co-op was incorporated and shortly thereafter opened its first storefront in South Slocan, about 15 minutes west of Nelson.

In the fall of 1985, the co-op moved into Nelson and took over the Pantry House, occupying about 2,000 square feet total. With the move to Nelson, the store was opened to non-members and attracted a large number of customers who were used to shopping at the Pantry House.

In the spring of 1989 a major renovation increased the retail space to 1,400 square feet. After the co-op turned the plain, mismatched store into a cohesive unit, its customer base widened and sales increased dramatically. By 1991, the store had outgrown that location entirely, and made a five-block move to the other end of Baker Street. Some 1,200 square feet were leased to an organic bakery, but in 2000 the bakery was given notice that it would have to move, and the co-op expanded to fill the vacant space.

What does it mean to be a co-op?

Kootenay Co-op is incorporated as a cooperative in the Province of British Columbia. Kootenay Co-op is owned by its members, who are each required to purchase ten $5.00 shares. These shares are a "no interest investment" in the co-op; if members decide to, they may withdraw their shares at face value. In return for their shares, which give the co-op its capital base, members receive many benefits:

  • on a monthly member appreciation day -- chosen by the members -- they receive 10% off most purchases;
  • two annual bulk sales are offered for members only;
  • volume discounts on several supplement lines are passed on to members;
  • members are eligible for several in-store promotions;
  • for the last four years there has been a patronage rebate of some significant portion of profit.

In addition, each member has one vote at general meetings and may sit on the board of directors. Most of the staff are members of the co-op, though this is not required.

The board of directors is elected by the membership; one director is a staff person and is elected by the staff. The co-op operates with a system of coordinators or department heads, who are overseen by a general nanager. Although the GM reports to the board, she is basically part of the management team rather than holding a more typical executive position, which allows for a lot of flexibility and feedback.

Promotions

The main promotions at the co-op are in-store. The product displays and case stacks are legendary and award winning! As well, the staff produce an informative monthly newsletter that can be picked up in the large print or the "paper-saver" versions or viewed on the internet.

Co-op advertisements in the local newspapers often have an educational aspect and include information on seminars or other public events. In-store tastings and demos, especially of local products, are frequent. Kootenay Co-op also offers accounts for local students and frequently supports local initiatives, such as the community gardens and World Food Day.

See other articles from this issue: #103 November - December - 2002