In last month’s column, I reported about our Co-op’s performance last fiscal year, through the lens of the first of our “Ends,” or overarching aspirational goals. Our second “End” states that the BFC exists to meet its shareholders’ collective needs for a welcoming community marketplace.
End #2: The BFC exists to meet its shareholders’ collective needs for a welcoming community marketplace.
As you can imagine, this is open to a wide variety of interpretations, as many of our Ends are. I fundamentally believe that this is about a friendly atmosphere and great service. Over the years, so many have remarked on the unique character of a visit to the Co-op, unlike a visit to any other grocery store in town. As we live in a small community, our Co-op offers a chance to greet and catch up with countless friends and neighbors; many notable schemes, from new businesses to candidacies for office, have been explored in our Café. This End also implies that our outreach work in the community informs the greater population about the breadth of our welcome, whether in supporting healthy programs at the Hospital, the many initiatives with Groundworks Collaborative, or the conversations by Education and Outreach coordinator Lizi Rosenberg with schoolchildren tall and small.
How to measure this? One fairly basic way is in the number of transactions that pass through our Front End. If people are feeling comfortable, they will return again and again, and will count on the Co-op to fill a space in their social fabric. And, in many cases, they will discover more products as they get to know our store and spend more of their food dollars there.
When discussing this “End” with staff, there were also suggestions that we look at data relating to our Food for All program, for those on assistance through EBT, WIC, or SSI. This would show that we are making some headway in truly being more welcoming to a wider swath of our community. Last year, we had an increase of 35% of people using our Food for All program, up to 373 folks.
But the general transaction data shows some trends that are somewhat troubling. Although our transaction size has been growing steadily over the last three years, up nearly 3.5% last fiscal year over the prior year, our number of transactions have decreased. Last year, that number was down 1% from the previous year. We have heard that both of these trends seem to be true for other stores as well. However, upon scrutiny every business is dealing with issues particular to itself. We have several co-ops around us who have exhibited fantastic growth over the last few years. Ours, as an established co-op buried in the downtown, has some issues peculiar to that location, which we hear about from customers and would-be customers. Being at the heart of downtown means that for some people, choosing to come downtown plays into their decision of where to shop, whether due to traffic, parking, or a combination of those. For others, the discomfort of seeing some of our less fortunate neighbors holding signs asking for help is too much to deal with. However, those who have clearly chosen the Co-op are buying more here, and for that we are very grateful.
So many of these issues are not immediately solvable. Yet, we know that we must participate in every option that presents itself to work towards alleviating the social and economic troubles we see expressed every day on our street corners. And that includes directing some of our profits towards those organizations who are working so hard with such limited resources to address some of these causes. So, we gave over $16,000 in contributions and sponsorships last year, including NOFA Share the Harvest, Strolling of the Heifers, and over $10,000 from Bag-a-Bean to 36 area non-profits over last fiscal year. It also includes encouraging you to “see” those asking for help, even just to say hello, or bring the occasional cup of coffee. And we remind you about all the back ways to get through downtown without taking the Main Street corridor, avoiding heavy traffic times and train crossings. We encourage you to use Flat Street and Elm Street, and all the parking options available there. We further encourage you to use bikes, feet, and all those increasingly easy energy-efficient ways to get around (see vbikesolutions.org). And, as always, we encourage those of you who truly enjoy the pleasures of our Co-op to share those with your friends and neighbors.
Some believe that “a welcoming community” means not monitoring people around the store who are exhibiting suspicious behavior, or having signs up asking for restrooms to be for patrons only. It’s true, we have been forced to intensify our vigilance and enforce policies that we may not wish to, but all of that is due to increased theft and mis-use of public facilities. One goal of being “welcoming” is that elderly folks, families with small children, and all of us have the right to a calm and safe marketplace. At the same time, we strive to keep our interactions with those who take advantage of us or our assets civil and respectful, working very hard to not assume or presume, even as we protect our property and staff. Such is the struggle of our time.
Finally, I am happy to say that we have had great feedback about the friendliness of our staff. This measurement, though anecdotal, has been noted by many over a period of several years. We have made special efforts to discuss customer experience and co-op principles and values with the staff, and they have taken this to heart. And now, as we begin to look closely at issues of equity in our marketplace, we strive to engage with anyone who comes into our store in a positive manner. There is no better way, in my view, to demonstrate a welcoming community marketplace. Let me know your thoughts!
By Sabine Rhyne, General Manager