Niche Glitch

Themes linking this edition's feature co-op and the results from our annual survey:

Continuity with previous generations of cooperatives is precious. Co-ops are a gift from those who preceded us, including those in other cooperatives. Our responsibility is to share this gift and to pass it on.

It is a pleasure to report on the Hanover Consumer Co-op, now sixty years old. In our culture of historical amnesia, many people don't feel ties with anything over sixty beyond their own family. And Hanover's durability and adaptive evolution are two sides of the cooperative coin.

Strange as it may sound, for several years I've been looking forward to the time when most co-op readers would recognize themselves in the Hanover story. Twenty-five years no longer seems like so much for the present generation of food co-ops; some have just turned twenty, while a few are over thirty. In most of these organizations, the driving force in the younger years has been successfully sustained, often with leadership including those who founded the organization, and it has been shared with succeeding cooperative members and generations. Thus, we now have a couple hundred thriving, community-based businesses that have learned to serve their customers better and to base their growth on the cooperative's member-owners.

But many co-ops haven't grasped or attained this service and growth orientation. In addition, the market position of many seemingly successful stores is threatened, because their results to date reflect a previously protected specialty niche that is being eroded. The numbers in this year's survey reflect an increasingly competitive market, a now familiar trend. What will happen to your cooperative if its primary identity is products which are readily available elsewhere?

Food co-ops are increasingly outgrowing the vision and identity they first assumed twenty to thirty years ago. Note the distinction made by Hanover: their success is built on being member-driven rather than product-driven. Defining food co-op identity in the future is likely to be centered less on products and more on excellent service, friendliness, and ownership. Complete dedication to serving the needs of their members and an identity as responsive, member-driven businesses will be critical to co-ops' survival.

The cooperative mission can be summarized as member service based on member ownership. And excellent service plus tangible and intangible ownership benefits will sustain our cooperatives through future decades.

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