Getting Ready

Expansion stories from co-ops make great reading for friends and members of these businesses. The completion of such projects means more services, more member owners and more co-op jobs, more resources shared and business conducted through cooperatively owned enterprises.

Co-op staff, members, and professional allies have many reasons to be proud of these collaborative efforts. On the inside, getting to opening day and then adjusting to new operating circumstances can take a heavy toll in extra hours, pressure, and difficult work conditions.

The building blocks of expansion, although little noticed once a project is underway, are molded in measures such as member capital and discount policies, board planning, management training, and sharper marketing tools.

Fortunately, co-ops' knowledge about planning and carrying out expansions is much deeper and wider than it used to be. One thread to the present articles about expansion is that years of organizational preparation are often needed. In the one example where relocation was decided on and carried out with unusual swiftness, the co-op was able to rely on its own recent expansion experience, although its balance sheet was not ready.

Extensive preparations make it much easier to undertake projects that place heavy demands on everyone in the organization. The building blocks of expansion, although little noticed once a project is underway, are molded in measures such as member capital and discount policies, board planning, management training, and sharper marketing tools.

This foundation for expansion, built year to year, is the kind of preparation that should be the norm for food co-ops, not a special circumstance. That is, an orientation toward survival and growth of the cooperative involves examination on a continuing basis of capital projections, membership development, and marketing assumptions. A food co-op in today's dynamic market cannot afford a complacent approach that regards its market as stable or considers its future easily predictable and secure.

There are, after all, competitor stores no matter what the co-op's location or niche. There are plenty of other grocery store expansions occurring, especially in the direction of natural/organic. The article by George Southworth underscores the rapidity with which more competition for independent retails such as co-ops is coming not from the natural/organic chains but from mainstream supermarkets. Again, each food co-op, even if recently expanded, should be engaged in planning for further growth. The market demand is there: why not meet as much of it as your cooperative can?

For a few co-ops already engaged in ongoing strategic planning, these words are redundant. They may have already refined their mission, their member policies and services, their management resources and marketing plan -- making all these components consistent with growth of the co-op. Better prepared retail co-ops also are aligning with the practices and aggregate buying power of other stores.

The expansion of natural/organic sections in conventional supermarkets will challenge the market position of many co-ops. Will independent natural/organic retailers survive? Certainly many will -- they're thriving, after all -- but perhaps with a shrinking market share. Not many of today's co-ops are supermarkets -- and all of them need to prepare for a more competitive future by improving practices, building capacity, and aligning more strongly with other food co-ops.

Will independent natural/organic distributors maintain a place in the industry? Co-ops should hope so! But the answer is not a given. Different co-op distributors have adapted different strategies. In some regions, independent distributors are weak or not even present.

Will the activities of food co-ops in their communities be replaced? In most cases, that appears quite unlikely to me. And disappearance is less likely to the extent that the co-op (a) unites with other co-ops and (b) does more than simply selling natural/organic groceries.

At a minimum, merely as a market corrective to more concentrated capital, independent co-ops have importance in many places. Even to maintain that market power, many redundancies will have to be omitted and more united practices put in place by co-ops.

But co-ops are much more than a competitive yardstick and can continue to be much more. Why co-ops are needed is defined in its highest form in the International Cooperative Alliance "Statement of Cooperative Values and Principles." Remember those values: self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity. And recall co-ops' mandate to practice values of honesty, openness, social responsibility, and caring for others.

Does it seem likely that private firms driven by public, investor capital will be the leading source of these kinds of values? No matter how "green" and responsible some private enterprises are, I believe the answer to that question is "no." (The ideologically blinkered, of which there are many, would disagree.) An example currently under discussion: The conventional food system's influence over natural/organic is increasingly divergent from the aims of most natural/organic producers -- and of consumer co-ops.

For the foreseeable future and with growing urgency, there will be need to critique agribusiness, to build stronger regional food systems, to expand democratic enterprise. Food co-ops can contribute to addressing those needs, while beating their competition on service and information. That's a tall order.

See other articles from this issue: #096 September - October - 2001