The Co-op Difference, Again!

  | Food For Thought, GM Report

The relationship that you as our owners have to our retail operation is quite different from that between customers and other stores, in so many ways. We have a large staff working on your behalf to bring you the products and services that you need, in a manner that is consistent with how humans shop in retail stores these days. But the details of what we do are still just beyond what you experience in your shopping trips, and I believe that we all gain from a better understanding of how our individual actions impact things like prices on the shelves and profits at the end of a fiscal year. After all, we as a cooperative have chosen to get this work done together, for our mutual benefit, and this involves higher than average interactions about product choices, operational priorities, and community outreach. We continue to make choices and decisions to accomplish the “Ends” that our leadership has defined for us, including those for environmental sustainability, good food at good prices, and investment in our community through local purchases, wages, and fertile partnerships. You are such a vital part of all of these efforts, and we welcome your interest and participation in them.

We recently received a letter from a concerned Co-op owner and shopper about what we could be doing about packaging decisions that our vendors make, as well as wondering what steps we had already taken internally. I was happy to get the note, because it reminded me to let you all know some of the efforts that we are making for environmental sustainability from week to week. It also offered a chance for us to work with this shareholder to get at some of the more frustrating packaging decisions that are made by companies from whom we purchase product. Over the next few months we will be letting you know which vendors are particularly thoughtful and responsive to these concerns with shelf signs. In the meantime, we continue to move to reduce the amount of plastics that we use. We have begun to offer both compostable and plastic bags in Produce and Bulk—although a warning that the compostable bags will indeed compost rather fast, so if you really want to cut down on use but preserve your produce to the extent you are used to, bring in or buy a re-useable produce bag. We have durable net bags for a very reasonable price. We have also stepped up our efforts to use produce and other short- or damaged product taken from the sales floor in our prepared foods dishes. We will be printing an update of our sustainability efforts next month.

Meanwhile, I was reading an article in a supermarket trade journal this morning about the Kroger chain getting pushback from produce growers and distributors as a result of Kroger’s announcement that all vendors, including fresh fruit vendors, would be paid in ninety days. Trouble is, there is a federal law called the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act that requires fresh produce vendors to be paid in thirty days (or less) due to the nature of the product, which has usually been sold by the retailer within that time period. Problems are brewing over this announcement. [UPDATE: Kroger rolled back the 90-day policy after the produce industry pushed back.] But once again, I point to the co-op difference. The Brattleboro Food Co-op has always prioritized payments to its local vendors, particularly its farmers. Even in times of difficult cash management, which all companies experience from time to time, we were vigilant about not adversely affecting this group of small local vendors, whom we consider our partners. These growers are your neighbors as well, and the economic cycle that you participate in by shopping in and owning our store is most obviously strengthened by these types of policies. We do our best to support our growers.

This is not the approach of our competitors in the grocery industry. No matter how they put it, I can assure you that the small local vendors do not experience the quality of interactions that they receive from your Co-op. Even when it looks good and fresh, and even organic and possibly local (is that within 100 miles, or from New England or New York?), there is always more to the story. I have often referred to the delicate balance that we attempt, with support of local vendors, good wages and good environment for our staff, and good prices for you on the shelves. It makes it all the more important to get better at our business in order to maximize our profit to spend on our staff, our store, our vendors, and you, as we cut margins to offer deeper special prices and discount dollars. We have focused this year on tightening our procedures around shrink, or damaged/short-date/compromised product.

Speaking of margins and protecting our assets, occasionally we have had some difficult discussions around the theft and pilferage that we observe every day. We have some staff whose primary responsibilities include loss prevention, or catching thieves. Many of our staff members pay attention too, and they take the abuse of our friendly store very seriously.

One area of constant frustration is the Bulk department. As you know, if you have been following our processes over the last year and a half, Bulk sales have declined over the last three years, despite a strong core of avid shoppers. We have worked on our section to better provide fresher product to those customers that count on it, and have initiated several projects to inspire the use of the Bulk department, especially in a time of renewed understanding of waste-stream issues regarding plastics. But some patrons continue to violate both health rules and theft expectations by reaching into the bins to taste/sample/munch whatever they like. It’s a difficult conversation for our staff when confronted with this behavior. We have trained everyone to offer patrons to taste product in a manner consistent with health department expectations, and we have posted signs throughout the department about this. We are renewing our signage, believing that some have managed to ignore what has become familiar, and are asking you to curb your enthusiasm for whatever product you are tempted by in the bins. As one employee shareholder recently said, this practice is stealing, pure and simple, and often causes us to dispose of product that has been contaminated. “Between Friday evening 6/8 and Saturday evening 6/9, I logged almost $400 into the shrink sheet and had to throw out several pounds of food (2 pounds of granola & 1 pound of sesame sticks),” a staff member told me. Whether it is a cute four-year-old with an indulgent parent, or a long-time shareholder that somehow believes they are entitled to tastings, we beg of you to resist this, and simply ask a staff person to sample the product for you that you find interesting in a reasonable way. This kind of margin impact adds up, and in a hurry, despite how innocuous that peanut seems.

Owning a grocery store can mean that you feel good about your participation in this aspect of your community. It can also mean that you learn more about this business than you may have considered before, and I believe that is a good thing. Thank you for your comments and questions; they keep us striving for the best.

By Sabine Rhyne, General Manager