Good News and Old News

There is so much good news to report, in addition to what appears in this edition, that many of the stories will have to wait. For example: new co-op stores!

Along with the second store for Mississippi Market, Harvest Co-op in Boston has opened a third store, Hyde Park Co-op in Chicago is about to open a third store, in Seattle Puget Consumers Co-op is opening its eighth store and Central Co-op will soon open a second store, La Montanita Co-op in Albuquerque has signed for a second site, Outpost Co-op in Milwaukee will open a second store this year, New Pioneer Co-op in Iowa City has signed on a second site, and Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op is planning a second store.

Besides new stores in Moscow, Idaho and Pensacola, Florida recently reported here, there are relocations or major expansions in progress at Williamson Street Co-op in Madison, Sevananda in Atlanta, Life Grocery in nearby Marietta, Weaver Street Market and Hendersonville Community Co-op in North Carolina, and at Good Foods Co-op in Kentucky, plus a new co-op opening in Benton Harbor, Michigan. I may have overlooked some stores - the list is sure to grow!

These and many other food co-ops are strengthening services to members and extending cooperative ownership, building on a foundation of community ties in order to meet further challenges ahead. Those challenges include not only successfully selling groceries but also playing a leading role in educating members and others about environmental health issues such as irradiation and genetically engineered foods, just as they have concerning organic production. These cooperatives are pursuing such critical activities in a context of shared responsibility and benefits, in contrast to the larger capitalist context of socialized costs and privatized profits.

It's not news that the private market context is increasingly pressing upon such co-op businesses, taking away potential members and business through greater economies of scale and sophistication of methods. Along the way to many stories of cooperative success and expansion, there are others where the growth and learning curves are flat. As this edition's annual survey section reports, one in four retail co-ops is not keeping up with inflation - in a natural products niche that is booming.

As the soft market that gave rise to several hundred retail and several thousand preorder co-ops continues to evolve and expand, co-op distributors based on these businesses have themselves had to evolve, often faster than most of their member co-ops. Although we may be fundamentally about building cooperative ownership, that purpose won't be realized if we provide the goods and services demanded by members and potential members with price or service levels that are much weaker than what is available through conventional distributors, retailers, and other channels.

For preorder or buying club co-ops, evolution has primarily taken the form of ever greater product selection supported by stronger distributors, along with improved ordering software and delivery services from the same sources. Mainstream supermarkets, electronic ordering, and to a lesser extent private distributors continue to challenge the buying club sales base. The temporary surge of sales from the Y2K phenomenon will not be easily replaced by a new scare.

For retails, private store chains and distributors are changing the business landscape dramatically. And growth in sales at most co-op stores is not always being matched by growth in management abilities. Fortunately, leaders on co-op boards and staff are more and more working together rather than on their own to address organizational challenges. There is a growing recognition that it is far better to preserve and enhance our common cooperative purpose than to disappear while hanging on to our unique methods and history.

For consumer co-op distributors, now reduced to five in number in the U.S., all the same lessons apply, only perhaps more strongly. Each of these five is a successor to two or three or more co-op distributors. Each of those predecessors was led by people with motivations similar if not identical to those of today's leaders. In each case, whether recognized in time or not, the best way to preserve and strengthen the co-op's purpose, services and membership was through consolidation with another cooperatively owned distributor.

This was my point when at the recent national co-op conference I delivered a five-minute singsong presentation of thirty years of co-op warehouses. Following is that list, in approximate chronological order, along with their home states - with apologies merely for the abbreviations! This is mostly old news, bad news only if we learn nothing from it:

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Infinity Warehouse (Pennsylvania)
People's Warehouse (Minnesota)
Great River Wholesale (Minnesota)
New Life Warehouse (New Mexico)
Magnolia Warehouse (Georgia)
Yellow Rose Co-op Warehouse (Texas)
Southern Cal. Co-op W. (California)
San Francisco Co-op W. (California)
Community Warehouse (D.C.)
Starflower (Oregon)
Equinox (Washington)
Cooperating Community Grains (Wash.)
Community Produce (Washington)
Mid-Eastern Cooperatives (New Jersey)
Pacific Rim (Washington)
GIP-C Warehouse (Illinois)
Associated Cooperatives (California)
DANCe (Minnesota)
Connecticut Cooperatives (Connecticut)
Western Massachusetts Co-ops (Mass.)
NEFCO (Massachusetts)
FEDCO (Maine)
Orange Blossom Co-op Warehouse (Florida)
Mountain Warehouse (North Carolina)
Whole Food Express (California)
Common Health Warehouse (Wisconsin)
People's Wherehouse (Michigan)
Hudson Valley Federation (New York)
Federation of Ohio River Co-ops (Ohio)
North Farm Co-op (Wisconsin)
Tucson Co-op Warehouse (Arizona)
Ozark Co-op Warehouse (Arkansas)
Northeast Cooperatives (Vermont)
Blooming Prairie Co-op Warehouse (Iowa)

As always, the beat goes on. Is your a dead beat -- or an urgent beat, based on seven international cooperative principles?

See other articles from this issue: #083 July - August - 1999