GreenStar Co-op: A Different Look at Growth and Expansion

Most often the pages of Cooperative Grocer bring us tales of expansion and relocation projects, or new and innovative cooperative projects undertaken by some of our industry's adventurers. As I read these stories of milestones and accomplishments, I find myself wondering if business as usual pales for those adventurers once the pinnacle is ascended. And on occasion I sing the praises of those who refrain from adventuring in the conventional sense but who instead look at every day as an adventure -- those who keep the wheels turning, fine tuning systems that hum and sing, using the tools at hand to increase efficiency, and little by little providing greater value to their member/owners and increasing the cooperative ownership of capital.

GreenStar Cooperative Market is located in glorious Ithaca, NY, declared "most enlightened city in the US" by the Utne Reader in 1997. Ithaca is a small city, with a population of around 60,000, including 30,000 student residents. We're hard to fly into, have no rail station, a small bus station, and are over an hour from any interstate highway. Fortunately for GreenStar, once people find Ithaca they tend not to leave.

GreenStar's biggest blip on the national cooperative radar screen was when our store burnt down some 10 years ago, making moot the lengthy debate our Council (board of directors), management collective, and membership had been engaged in about the best path for expansion. In 1992 we opened the doors to our current location, a 10,000 sq. ft. building with 6,300 sq. ft. of retail space, a fourfold expansion from our former store.

The GreenStar story, as I have come to think of it, is the tale of a curious tortoise who slowly and steadily moves forward, constantly examining the terrain she passes, while she works on her gait and makes sure she is following the best path to reach her ultimate goal. At first the tale of this tortoise may not seem to provide much insight or inspiration, but as I have studied her path and progress and helped to guide her through recent travels, I have seen how much she has gained from living the life well-examined. And I find myself impressed with the amount of growth, excitement and forward momentum that can be fostered by this outlook.

GreenStar Co-op

I think analysis of the travels of the GreenStar tortoise, as well as all of other cooperative folks keeping the home fires burning, has much to offer the entire retail food cooperative community. Although we have not moved swiftly and rapidly, we have found other ways to keep moving and learning with each step.

In November of 1998 I stepped into the general manager's position, only the second GM in GreenStar's 27-year history.

Until opening in our current location in the fall of 1992, GreenStar had been managed by a ten-person collective. Within two years of opening in the new location almost all of the members of the previous management collective left the co-op. In 1998, when Arthur Godin, 15-year GreenStar veteran and its first general manager, stepped down, GreenStar was left with his ever so roomy size 12s to fill and plenty of new ground to break.

When I stepped into the GM position, GreenStar had a lot of projects planned -- the tortoise having grown comfortable enough with her situation to change her gait. In June of 1999 GreenStar installed its first POS system, with five brand spankin' new lanes and a POS register system. In August of 1999 we moved our deli production off-site to allow for the renovation and redesign of our kitchen and the addition of hot and cold deli service cases. We kept cooking offsite, selling deli food in temporarily installed coolers in creatively placed locations and managed to keep growing throughout the construction period. We opened our new service deli in October of 1999.

GreenStar Co-op

Staff turnover in '99 was high, and we strived to improve our training systems to cope with this faster turnover, as well as the increased staffing needs of our now rapidly growing co-op. From 1998 to 1999 sales grew 16.6% to $4.9 million. When 2000 rolled around, the plea from staff (myself included) was, "Please, let's just not move anything."

Although the path to the next big project was cloudy, our desire to continue to grow and improve was strong, and a new model focusing on continuous and constant small improvements was adopted. We set a path for the tortoise with an eye open for constant reassessment. We adopted as our unspoken motto that change will be constant, and there will always be ways to improve on each thing we do, each system we develop, each best practice we think we have attained. Our commitment to continuing to grow and learn helped us take the best from each situation we encountered and to recognize when we needed to make change to our way of doing things, even when we might prefer not to do so.

January of 2000: We implemented three training modules for all new staff: Co-op Education, Safety and Security, and Customer Service Training (Partners for Life), and we began monthly supervisor trainings covering a broad range of topics. Orientation of staff, sexual harassment awareness, reading and understanding financial statements, stress management, time management, and giving and receiving feedback are some of the topics we have covered. April of 2000: We added made-to-order sandwiches to our deli offerings. The response from customers was immediately positive.

June of 2000: We addressed congested aisles and high customer counts by expanding our hours from 9-9 seven days a week to 7-11 seven days a week. This was accompanied by changing our grocery merchandising strategy away from lingering case stacks, for which we had little room, to deeper sales, which gave shoppers better prices for shorter periods of time.

August of 2000: In the produce section, we replaced 8-year-old dry display units with new and much more versatile units, plus added an island refrigerated case.

August of 2000: We revamped our eating area, increasing its visual appeal as well as its capacity.

August of 2000: We added a new module to our all staff trainings with Culture of Respect training, focused on respect for diversity in the workplace and on creating an intentional work culture of support and direct communication.

From 1999 to 2000 sales grew 15.2% to $5.6 million. Our sales per square foot increased from $15.85 to $17.79, although sales per paid labor hour declined from $59.21 to $55.08 (due to a significant increase in sales from our new service deli).

February of 2001: We moved some of our deli coolers and opened Ithaca's only all-organic and fair-trade espresso bar.

March of 2001: We hosted a Northeast Cooperatives two-day produce department workshop. The final project for this workshop resulted in a beautifully reset produce department for GreenStar and an immediate increase in sales.

March of 2001: We purchased a small local Chai production company of which we were the single largest customer, and we began to produce Ithaca Chai in our deli kitchen.

April 2001: Delivery of Ithaca Chai to local clientele gave us a natural opportunity to deliver other products, and we began small scale distribution of the co-op's bakery and deli items.

July of 2001: We rolled out the much desired juice bar component of our deli, utilizing the same space as our organic and fair-trade espresso bar.

November of 2001: We renovated our entryway to provide a less cluttered "decompression zone" for shoppers. Attendance at our classes and movement of our cooperative educational materials increased immediately.

From 2000 to 2001 sales grew 16.2% to $6.5 million. Our sales per square foot increased to $20.88, and sales per paid labor hour climbed back up to $57.79.

So far in 2002 we have reset our HABA department to accommodate the installation of Health Notes, enhancing our wellness resource center for shoppers. Other intended projects for the year include replacing all of our bulk bin units and all of our grocery shelving.

Each year I continue to be delighted, amazed and proud of the positive impact these combined changes have had on our sales growth, all without increasing our footprint, moving our storefront, or opening a second location. It feels somewhat like the old saw of making the most of what you've got. Perhaps this is simply the natural progression of being in a location for any good chunk of time, and maturing your business. This conscious embracing of a slow and steady pace, coupled with the mindset of constant reassessment and desire and willingness to change, has allowed us to continue the excitement generated by our 1999 year of renovation.

For those of us guiding the GreenStar tortoise, it has been extremely important to keep in mind that expansion and growth can be achieved by following more than one path. And that one important way to reduce costs and increase return to members is to continually enhance our existing operation by increasing its reach within our existing customer base. The single biggest lesson I think we have learned is to not allow ourselves to feel that small steps or changes are unimportant or less valuable, and to remember that the slow and steady can indeed win the race.

GreenStar Co-op

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