Growing Co-ops

A new food co-op and two recovered ones are each reason to celebrate, and they make for good news in this edition of Cooperative Grocer. Startup co-ops, an uncommon achievement, also have opened in Portland, Milwaukee, Boulder, and elsewhere during the past couple years. But why are there only a handful of such stories?

The best short answer may be that launching a retail cooperative is a lot more work than most people realize. And in the case of existing but weaker co-ops, merger is usually not an attractive proposition to other co-op partners. A somewhat longer answer also would point to common patterns of cooperative development and capital formation that are slow: careful but conservative. In my view, the best way to overcome these development hurdles is from within existing co-ops, where we have accumulated significant cooperatively owned resources and co-op organizational and professional experience.

Besides natural food stores in urban centers, another arena for co-op development is smaller towns and cities with broader grocery needs that are underserved or understored; a future edition will look at some current efforts of this type. (And for any independent startup and its leaders, an indispensable publication is “How to Start a Food Co-op,” available for viewing and downloading at and available for ordering as a bound publication through Cooperative Grocer.)

On the one hand, many retail food co-ops are growing with impressive consistency: same-store sales growth reported through CoCoFiSt data sharing continues at double-digit rates that are seldom matched by privately owned stores. On the other hand, there are few new co-ops, and out of some three hundred organizations only a dozen or so co-ops operate more than one site.

The current proposal to restructure the system of Cooperative Grocers Associations, while focused primarily on the substantial short-term advantages to be gained from a more consolidated system, also makes mention of future enhanced ability to assist co-op startups. That is indeed desirable and may be feasible when much greater capital resources have been accumulated, as is anticipated under a stronger national organization. But when that happy circumstance arrives, will your local co-op be ready?

Sharing the wealth

Again, the most likely scenario for successfully establishing new stores remains one of development based in existing co-ops. That means that directors, managers, and members of today’s many successful co-ops have the best opportunity to develop more stores. And they have an obligation to do so, or at least to examine this direction, if they agree that cooperatives are a great thing that should be shared with more people.

Co-ops seem to need another round of debate about growth—but with an outward focus. Are you leading your organization and its members beyond a focus on “me” to an expanded “we” and a mission of cooperative growth? That work will involve all the usual key elements: mission, members, money, management, and marketing. Will planning or helping to develop another store be on your co-op’s agenda?

Long-time readers in cooperatives will recognize my reminder to examine what is “yours” and where it came from. The co-op is a gift from those who came before us, and we have an obligation to spread it around and pass it on. Rather than borrowing from the future, in the manner of much of today’s cannibalistic capitalism, we can be building a foundation for tomorrow’s consumer cooperatives.

See other articles from this issue: #111 March - April - 2004