Looking through the brochure for the CCMA conference this last June, I noticed a workshop entitled "Meeting First-Year Challenges After Expansion." My first thought was, "I could lead that!"…and so could many of the employees at North Coast Co-op.
The North Coast Co-op realized a decade long dream last year by expanding its Arcata, California facility from 7900 retail sq. ft. to 13,500 retail sq. ft. But it wasn't a cakewalk for anyone.
The basic expansion plan had been approved five years prior to the ground breaking ceremony, held on July 26, 2000. We had encountered delay after delay over those five years, and when the first bulldozer finally pulled in the drive, the project cost had ballooned from the originally proposed $2.2 million to $3.3.
Nevertheless, with a completion date estimated at 9 months after the ground breaking, we were blissfully unaware of some of the unforeseen obstacles we would face. Others we knew were coming but their intensity was much greater than originally anticipated. Highlights included buried electrical cables, an underground tributary, the city disallowing a previously approved entry door, problems with native plant landscaping, a lost two ton wooden fish, departments hit hard with limited storage, relocation, electrical problems, equipment repairs and downtime, and employees wearing filtering masks while the contractors blasted away.
It wasn't very much fun, to say the least. Management was near exhaustion at the end, and employees had suffered construction stress. But now that the project is through, we continue to have customers coming through the door marveling at our "new" facility and heaping praise on everyone for surviving the expansion! Many of our longtime members supported us throughout the expansion, and others have returned to shop our expanded selections.
Addressing multiple interests
Growth had our 45 year old facility bursting at the seams. Employee safety issues were growing right along with those sales. As the co-op team members examined problems which could have been resolved through renovation of the aging structure, they soon concluded that it would be more cost effective to plan for a full expansion and twenty-five more years of solid growth.
The Co-op called in Jerry Dougal, an architect out of Southern California who specializes in retail store remodels of the type we were focusing on. One of our main interests was to make the most out of recycled or recyclable materials and to stay away from chemicals whenever possible. For example, rather than particleboard, which contains chemicals to which some people are sensitive, the new store uses gypsum fireproofing. And rather than using redwood on the store front, aluminum was the choice. When there was no alternative to wood, Dougal chose engineered wood products, using new growth wood and combining it with new high performance organic resins and fabricates in a way that uses the wood very efficiently. This reduced the amount of wood used and allowed the use of lower quality wood that would otherwise be discarded.
It wasn't until fifteen months after the carrot had been pulled from the ground in our ground-breaking ceremony that for the first time all departments and corporate offices were united in the "new" building. The construction project had literally gone on over the heads of staff, members, and shoppers. The parking lot literally had been reconfigured around our shoppers. Everyone took a deep breath as the final renovation phase began and the light at the end of the tunnel began to peep through.
Stay open or close?
The staff of the co-op had wanted to stay open during the renovation, rather than close down for three months and complete the entire construction project quickly. While this kept over one hundred jobs open in the community, the retail and customer service staff faced a large turnover rate. Much higher than retail grocery standards, this turnover was related mostly to the construction atmosphere staff faced at work during the final phases of the project. With jack hammers singing daily and hot tar being poured on the roof, we sadly said goodbye to many a long time employee. Management did not escape either, suffering a fifty percent turnover during the same time.
On the bright side...the expansion added a two-story section onto the north end of our building, created a seating/dining area which services both the bakery and the deli, expanded and renovated the production areas for the bakery, deli, and produce, added a modern receiving and backstock area, increased refrigeration capacity, and brought the corporate staff in under the same roof for the first time in years.
Another "plus" from the expansin brought online a computerized EMS environment control system -- just in time for the California energy crisis to hit. A recent energy audit shows the co-op is now 30% below budget. The design of the new building uses 81.22 Kbtu/sq.ft. (113.0 Kbtu/sq.ft of energy are allowed per year), and the co-op will be receiving rebates for efficient lighting, refrigeration and air conditioning. Other energy saving innovations in the newly remodeled store include recapturing waste heat from the compressor, preheating hot water from the waste heat from the compressor, and exposed heating ducts to promote energy efficiency -- they are below the insulation which will trap the excess heat.
Our staff, especially the people on the front lines, did an excellent job of maintaining customer service and redirecting shoppers as product was shifted from side to side of the building during the renovation. Managers struggled to keep systems intact while developing new ones to service the expanded store. Phone systems, mail systems, informational systems all had to be maintained during the ongoing expansion and at the same the technology which had created those systems had vastly improved. So, how to make the transitions between the old and new became a prevailing issue. Managers not only had increased workloads but also ventured into new system development areas in which they had little previous experience.
We had our Grand Reopening on October 17, 2000, but the stress certainly didn't diminish with the end of construction. Our departments heads in areas which had greatly expanded, such as front end, customer service, deli/litchen, and bakery, found themselves without enough trained staff. And marketing had to redo all its systems for signage and customer contact.
What a year! And it isn't over yet. However, things are beginning to calm down quite nicely. We have a beautiful new store!
Members and shoppers are coming in droves. Sales are up 18% and climbing. The press stops by frequently to use the store as a backdrop for food articles, and we are attracting new faces from demographic groups we haven't seen before.
North Coast Co-op, Arcata Store: Arcata, California
[former location / new location (10/15/2000)]
Size (retail): 7,900 sq. ft. / 13,500 sq. ft.
Size (total): 7,900 sq. ft. / 13,500 sq. ft.
Annual sales: $11,800,000 / $13,300,000 (projected)
Average transaction: $14.90
Staff: 187 Arcata, 243 NCC
Member owners: 9,010
Relocation project costs: $3,500,000