Cooperative Grocers Associations

There is no shortage of ideas or opportunities for collaboration among co-ops, and as the list continues to grow we are faced with the reality of structure. How can we efficiently and effectively implement programs within a structure that allows for adequate access to capital, democracy and representation, organizational agility to make decisions, and a means to reward key owners and contributors for their efforts and risk in building these national programs?

The National Cooperative Grocers Association board of directors, along with several invited guests, tackled these questions within the context of the ownership structure for the national Co-op label project at a three-day meeting in January. The result of this work is a proposed ownership model for programs like the Co-op label, and a potential revised membership structure for NCGA that makes possible the values and considerations mentioned above.

The board is now reviewing the specific legal structure that would serve as the model within which Co-op label and future programs and initiatives could quickly and easily be implemented. This process is complex and time consuming, yet the outcome is extremely valuable to our efforts. We must form an ownership and membership structure that works and is flexible and adaptable to the initiatives on that ever-growing list.

Moving quickly to the top of the list of priorities is an expansion to a national program of the Cooperative Advantage Program (CAP) pioneered by the Midwest CGA and the Twin Cities Natural Food Co-ops. [For an early review of this collaborative buying program, see CG #86, Jan.-Feb. 2000.] These two founding CGAs have authorized the time and resources needed to complete a feasibility study and program sketch of how CAP can be expanded to other CGAs. Both the Northeast and Northwest CGAs are actively pursuing the development of collaborative branded product promotions through the wholesaler within their region, and it is hoped that CAP can be effectively exported to these CGAs.

CAP is a tried and tested model with a record of success in the Midwest; therefore these other CGAs can avoid duplicating the development process. CAP is also a proven program with natural food manufacturers, and manufacturer familiarity and embrace of the program will ease the transition of regional co-op promotion of their products for other CGAs.

Programs like CAP and Co-op label require advanced and standardized information technology (IT) support for the participating stores. Eight IT specialists from co-op stores around the country have formed a working group, CoCoIT, under the guidance and supervision of Walden Swanson of Cooperative Development Services. CoCoIT is currently working on standardized database and other IT solutions to facilitate improved data sharing and analysis and to support collaborative projects between co-ops.

As CoCoIT develops and implements an IT strategy for co-ops, we can foster better use of systems such as category management to improve individual store success, in addition to supporting collaborative efforts. These eight individuals bring a level of expertise that is highly valuable, and it is exciting to see their enthusiasm (and their home co-op's enthusiasm) to work for the benefit of all co-ops.

As the foundations are laid for all of these projects, a theme continually emerges: How can we develop systems for collaboration that are efficient yet flexible enough to accommodate co-ops of varying size and style? The answer lies somewhere between a purposeful embrace of flexibility in designing the systems and earnest recognition by all participants that some measure of individual change is required.

The integration of our individual stores into a national system must provide desired operational benefits while celebrating the local identities and values that define us. Individual stores must be willing to accept some lesser control of the details that go into each program in order to enable synthesis with the larger group. This combination of flexibility and compromise is the key to realizing our vision of a dynamic and effective national presence for our greater good and long-term success. I believe we are well on our way.

Robynn Shrader is NCGA executive director of NCGA.

See other articles from this issue: #094 May - June - 2001