Hang Together - Or Be Hanged Separately

The World of Food Co-ops: Powerful results can be achieved, as the previous edition's report on Co-op Atlantic shows, by a cooperative food system that is embedded in the local culture, that is developed systematically rather than independently, and that emphasizes management support and other retail services based in a strong central organization. And the subjects of this edition's news stories -- an eighth store for Puget Consumers Co-op and the closing of two small co-ops in Minneapolis -- powerfully illustrate two roads of co-op development: one of independence and fragmentation, and one of increasing consolidation and integration.

As the natural foods market continues its rapid expansion, co-ops in that field face the challenge of continually improving services to member owners and customers. Co-ops that do so will provide market leadership and be exemplary community owned enterprises. Alternatively, co-ops can pursue various agendas while avoiding recognition that their mission is to be achieved through providing excellent value and service to increasing numbers of member owners. But outside of small and protected markets, those which cannot embrace a shared cooperative mission of service and growth are likely to wither and even if profitable claim a shrinking share of a growing market.

Perhaps it is time for independent food cooperatives, who increasingly are competing with larger, better capitalized stores, to revive a colonial-era statement from Benjamin Franklin, who also was the founder of the first American cooperative: "We must all hang together, or we shall be hanged separately." For here's the real parallel: like the independent grocers who encountered the first generation of supermarkets, today's food co-ops need to grow beyond their independence.

I hope cooperative leaders will continue to think about Co-op Atlantic's system and the need for more standardized and integrated co-op enterprise. These ideas are far from new, but encouraging new efforts are under way. Retail associations among members of Northeast Cooperatives, Midwest members of Blooming Prairie, Twin Cities co-ops, and Northwest co-op managers are engaged, at varying levels of commitment, in attempts to work more closely together.

What about consolidation among consumer co-op grocery distributors, where scale is even more critical to success than at retail and where retail integration must actually be centered? Along with the closing by North Farm of the former Common Health Warehouse facility, recent efforts have yielded little but frustration. But the beat goes on: the development direction is clear. During the past twenty years, these co-ops have shrunk in number from two dozen to seven -- and soon fewer, foreseeably.

The retail efforts -- and what holds them back -- will be reported on next time. See also this edition's story from Davis, where an intended expansion was derailed; and the article on member services and education/outreach, the first in a series covering retail departments.

The World of Commerce: A chart in the NYTimes recently provided a refreshing reminder that selling is not the overriding concern everywhere and that in Europe 24-hour supermarkets are something less than simply good business practice. The article accompanying the chart, reflecting that newspaper's usual viewpoint, reported investors and bankers fretting that early retail closing hours were limiting the potential for greater sales and return on investment.

Weekday retail closing time (Thursdays excepted) is by law earlier than 7 p.m. in Ireland, Denmark, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, and is 8 p.m. in Britain, Norway, Belgium, and Italy. (Sweden, France, Spain and Greece have not set closing time, and Portugal's is midnight.) Only Belgium, Italy, Netherlands, and France allow some Sunday shopping. And most impressive, by contrast with our commercial culture, are Spain and Italy, where shops close for lunch from noon to 4 p.m.

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