Using Survey Data to Improve Co-ops

Cooperative Grocer and CoCoFiSt

Green Fields Market follows the annual Cooperative Grocer (CG) survey closely. For me, the survey and the accompanying analysis have been textbook lessons in cooperative finance. I have learned about relevant measures of performance, their natural range, and read about the implications of high or low values on the business. Our board looks to the report as a benchmark. We have had many enlightening discussions after comparing our performance to the survey medians, and I think seeing the wide range in most data has broadened our board member's perspective and helped them ask important questions.

In the early days, we relied on CG reports to establish our primary benchmarks for sound fiscal performance. We specifically used our high discount percent of sales to rationalize lowering member discounts from 5% to 2% of purchases. It was also clear from the report that our membership investment, then at $50, was too low to allow us to properly capitalize our business.

Lately, the CG and CoCoFiSt reports have become useful at another level: strategic planning. We have gone from confirming an out of spec measure to understanding the texture of our business, its maturity in its facility and market. By using these reports to better understand what a successful co-op looks like, we can see if our current trajectory is getting us there or if it is taking us further from that goal. We can shape our co-op to be better before anything actually goes wrong! This is in contrast to earlier uses, where we identified problems and then acted to mitigate them.

An example is in the realm of location planning. Green Fields Market moved to its current location in November 1993. At the time, the space seemed huge, and after a couple of years it was obvious that we still had plenty of capacity. The board, though, continued to look ahead. We were growing at a regular pace and could see that yes, it would be possible to outgrow our space eventually. At what sales level would that happen?

We turned to CG and CoCoFiSt and saw an interesting trend. When we looked at sales per square foot, we noticed that when a co-op reached $20/sq.ft./week, they all seemed to be planning expansions. Not very scientific, I admit, but this was sufficient for our early uses to see that we, at $11.50/sq.ft., still had some room to grow in our space. That gave us the confidence to deliberately plan our next move. Would we keep the current location, assuming we would be facing space constraints in a few years? Would the board prefer moving to a new location, or would we remain committed to this location, with potentially a second site in mind?

Next, we looked at CoCoFiSt reports, which have sales per linear foot data at the departmental level. We were able to compare our shopping intensity with traffic at stores our size and larger. We now have an idea about the carrying capacity of each department as it is currently configured. We are using this information, together with firsthand experience and our overall vision for the store, to plan space allocations in an upcoming reset.

Green Fields Market is a member of CGANE, our regional Cooperative Grocers Association. We recently voted that all CGANE members would participate in CoCoFiSt and the CG survey. We are planning to use this information to improve individually and as a group.

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