Cooperative Resurgence and Renewal

Running through several of the stories and reports in this edition is a theme of resurgence and renewal among cooperatives. I also heard this theme at a recent meeting concerning strategies for formation of more cooperative stores. Reports from across the country indicate there are more expanding stores and attempted co-op formations, more co-op growth and initiatives, than have been seen in many years.

These developments should in turn inspire others, since there is no foreseeable end to challenges for cooperatives and their member owners and allies. And if our food co-op network can follow through with its agreements to build unity and expand shared resources, the chances of cooperative growth and benefits will be substantially improved.

Newly negotiated relationships and responsibilities, new regional and national leadership, and expanding opportunities for common supply and promotions—all are demanding attention from busy co-op managers and directors. Bumps along the path of reorganization are inevitable, and I again remind co-op readers and participants of the need for flexibility in the midst of change, while keeping the larger goals in mind.

Despite years of increasing collaboration among successful co-ops, their work has barely begun to realize the mission of our National Cooperative Grocers Association: “provide the vision, leadership, and systems to catapult a virtual chain of food co-ops to a position of prominence in the natural food industry.” Each of the elements mentioned—vision, leadership, and systems—needs work. Co-op leaders face the challenging task of achieving this mission while expanding the scale and depth of collaboration among member co-ops.

After decades of independent stores and autonomous local ownership—elements that still seem to many to be the essence of a cooperative—these businesses and their leaders are now called to expand their horizons. And there are some co-ops that have yet to subscribe to the new direction. Yet enlargening co-ops’ position in the industry and in their communities will only occur through sustained, determined teamwork within their national and chapter networks.

The consequences of failure to stay abreast of a changing market are highlighted by the example of consumer co-ops in the U.K. There, the Cooperative Group, with ten times the sales volume and number of stores as U.S. food co-ops, experienced a period of major contraction, but currently is seeing a resurgence under new leadership, reorganization, and rebranding.

Why is there more interest in co-ops than at any time since the 1970s, the era in which most of today’s food co-ops were formed? Here is a preliminary outlook:

People are hungry for quality—natural/organic continues its strong expansion in many categories, and local/sustainable concerns are also growing. Co-ops have done well in this field, and their challenge is opening more and larger stores.

People are hungry for community—integrity and education and local relationships satisfy strong needs that are not being met by big box retailers. Co-ops have done well in building such connections, and their challenge is expanding the size and range of the cooperative community.
People are hungry for access to quality food in their community—retail food services are scarce in many urban neighborhoods as well as small town and rural areas where people must rely on distant or inconvenient grocery stores.

Co-ops’ challenge is focusing these community needs into sustainable business services.
We’ll have to confront historic barriers to consumer cooperative development, including weak capital formation, larger competition, limited management capacity, and conservative organizational culture.

Are you helping your cooperative—-member owners, managers, and directors—to expand their horizons? They may need to understand, embrace, and embark upon a changed course, a direction involving more stores and greater unity with other co-ops.

Make Plans:
June 9–11, 2005 CCMA Conference


Make plans now for your co-op’s participation in an essential forum, the annual CCMA (Consumer Cooperative Management Association) conference. The 2005 CCMA conference will be held June 9–11 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Put it on your calendar and in your budget!

See other articles from this issue: #115 November - December - 2004