Opportunities and Obligations

This edition's Retail Operations Survey provides an improved data base from which to measure co-op performance. The results? Co-ops numbers are good but are declining. Co-ops also continue to be too conservative in a booming natural/organic market.

Walden Swanson has again produced exceptional work in bringing together reports from 102 food co-ops representing over $400,000,000 in sales. New store size categories enable readers to make close comparisons of their store with the survey ranges and averages. The composite data also allows more reliable observations about co-ops vis-a-vis their major market competitors.

Make sure everyone in your co-op who needs a copy of this valuable report gets one. See page 29 for information on ordering subscriptions and literature.

One theme and one question remained with me after the recent gathering of food co-op leaders.

The theme was the importance of the Internet and information technology in making it possible for today's co-ops to move ahead and move together. Keynote speaker Steve Collier provided insight into the potential of the Internet for today's businesses and challenged co-ops to take advantage of global changes that are underway. Other speakers detailed new web-based services for food co-ops and how co-ops can obtain new addresses under the .coop domain name.

Even looking only within the food co-op sector, just in the past few years we have seen new web-based programs that have brought our combined resources a depth not seen before:

Walden's CoCoFiSt (Common Cooperative Financial Statements) data sharing and its spinoff projects have tremendously improved the level of shared store knowledge among retail managers. This magazine's survey section is only a hint of the in-depth examination that is now accessible to managers on a regular, interactive basis. A new CoCoFiSt spinoff is pursuing development of common information technology for food co-ops.

CGIN (Cooperative Grocers' Information Network) has in three years established a wealth of resources on its website, including a widely used public listserve on food co-ops as well as extensive electronic files with members-only access to co-op procedures, policies, and reports. CGIN is a low budget operation that has accomplished a great deal; it is looking to expand the scope of services it provides for its 100 member retail co-ops.

National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA), increasingly at the forefront of discussion about co-op strategy and links, is developing two major programs related to national buying and a co-op brand. NCGA executive director Robynn Shrader commented recently, "We need to be cooperating in cyberspace as a part of our long term vision to build this sector. We need to become comfortable and adept at using the internet to do business and communicate in a variety of ways amongst ourselves initially, to strengthen our cooperative network as retailers, and then we will be effectively poised to take advantage of this opportunity with our consumer owners. The more we become aware of and discuss these opportunities, the more we can build our comfort and proficiency levels with them."

NCGA's website is part of a much larger site and array of services at CoopSolutions.com, which has been launched by the National Cooperative Bank for business-to-business activities among cooperatives.

All these programs are working, with increasing collaboration and com-plementarity, to develop an integrated national system of retail co-op operations, product development, and strategic planning. Such a system has been a dream of many of us in food cooperatives since we first joined one a surprising number of years ago. If co-ops pull together, they can create an even more powerful market force and voice for consumers, both locally and nationally.

With this kind of unity, food co-ops' chances of survival will be that much greater. The alternative may be to mimic the fate of the previous generation of food co-ops, now diminished to a few, whose sales thirty years ago totaled the $700,000,000 we have reached today.

Other questions that remain with me stem from threatening social trends, summarized by the other keynote speaker, Jim Hightower, as "Who the hell's in charge here?" and underscored by his reminder that the hoopla about the tremendous expansion of wealth during the previous decade ignores the fact that 80 percent of the U.S. population did not receive any of that increased income.

Who benefits? Who is in charge? The issue of our time, and for the ages, is democracy and sharing the wealth. This struggle plays out in many local and international arenas, and it certainly includes the food sector. More and more people recognize abuse by concentrated private capital and its government allies. More and more people are willing to make an effort and invest in something better. Co-ops already lead many communities in promoting organics, sustainability, and local ownership. Co-ops also have an obligation to extend their democratic structure and ethic of sharing into the larger community.

As Hightower emphasized, coalitions are essential to this process. Hence the introduction of a new column in these pages from a valuable ally, the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture.

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