Information Technology Team Sees Co-op Benefits

Imagine sitting down at your desk after your co-op's busiest sales day of the week, then pointing and clicking your way to reports that illustrate the products and departments that performed better, the same, or worse than expected. Even better, imagine your new grocery buyer, who has not yet received much computer training, jumping in and accessing this information quickly and easily because the software runs just like his/her Internet browser. And what if you could also access the information about other co-ops in our virtual chain for comparison, by regional and/or size proximity to your store, using the same commands on your screen that you might use to browse the Internet?

Things are moving fast, and we have to do some running to keep up.

Now, I am not an expert in data warehousing and dashboards (technology terms), but I can tell you just a few of the many benefits I can think of by having such technology at our fingertips. Your co-op's grocery buyer could track, from daily point of sale data, which items are not selling well in relation to their shelf space. If he/she could see that you are not selling much within a group of products that other stores in your area are selling well, a phone call might lead to an exchange of merchandising ideas or the name of an alternative source. You might be able to prevent and/or act more quickly upon shelf out-of-stocks. And maybe you would have less training time for that new grocery buyer who came to work from another co-op in our virtual chain that also utilized this system.

These examples focus specifically on grocery, but how many benefits could there ultimately be from having all levels of CoCoFiSt information be easy to access and use by all managers who can point and click? And what if the information was up-to-date, system-wide, every day?

Operationally, the value would be enormous, and this is just what the CoCoITT (Common Cooperative Information Technology Team) is working on. Information is power, and technology providers are moving incredibly fast to design ways to collect it, package it, and get it back to those of us who need to keep pace in the retail world. I know this because our most recent CoCoITT meeting was held in conjunction with the Retail Systems 2001 Conference and Trade Show in Chicago last June. It was quite inspiring and a little daunting to see how advanced the field of retail technology has become, and how these advances are making retailers better and more sophisticated at serving their customers. Things are moving fast, and we have to do some running to keep up.

Category data, IT infrastructure

Our group attended several seminars and conducted meetings with various software designers to discuss the elements of two current projects. The first project, CoCoCatU, is an enhancement of the well established data sharing program, CoCoFiSt (Common Cooperative Financial Statements). CoCoCatU will provide the ability to drill down past the sub-department level to section, category, and sku. In some ways it will be similar to SPINS services for the private industry, but it will have the capacity to provide co-op by co-op comparisons as with CoCoFiSt now, and it will have operating and financial data. This project will facilitate our stores' ability to exercise category management and effectively implement and manage our Co-op brand of goods.

IT Infrastructure, the second project, involves thinking through the optimum food co-op technology strategy.

  • What are the best POS systems; how do we best support membership programs; and what about small co-ops and scanning?
  • How can this all bridge together for co-ops of varying size and style? Ultimately, this all needs to make us better operators to serve our member-owners, and attract next generation member-owners who are growing up in the age of technology with savvier expectations of us as service providers.

All of the CoCoITT members left our meeting inspired and motivated, and there is already some design progress that I hope to be able to report on later in the fall, after testing and further discussion by the group. I'd also like to thank Dan Frost and Willy Street Co-op for accepting the request of the group to co-manage our activities along with myself. CoCoIT was developed by and is an ongoing collaboration with Cooperative Development Services, and Walden Swanson, of course, is still very much involved in this work. Many thanks to Dan and to his co-op for providing this leadership and support to keep us moving forward on these projects for the benefit of all.

The CoCoITT model developed by CDS is a powerful one, and it is my hope that it can be replicated in many operational areas within our sector. NCGA was formed to coordinate regional activities into effective national programs that drive cost out of our system. NCGA, with a very small staff and limited resources, cannot build from scratch all of the programs needed and wanted by its member co-ops. There is a tremendous pool of talent out there in our stores and regions, and NCGA will be most effective by collaborating to leverage talent and knowledge for the whole.

The current launch of a national CAP (Cooperative Advantage Program) for promotional buying is one example of expanding regional work to a national scale. I hope to see, over time, others forming teams similar to CoCoITT that generate the best plans and programs to address our business challenges. Everyone is working on solving these challenges in our individual stores; let's utilize and coordinate this work within a national vision for the food co-op sector.

NCGA's success is dependent upon the flexibility of its retail member owners and their willingness to put in what they can, under the expectation that together we can accomplish more than alone. It will not happen overnight, and the trust, generosity, and patience required among such a diverse group is significant. I thank and salute all of NCGA's members and strategic partners for creating NCGA and for their continued work to build it into the organization that fulfills our mission "to provide the vision, leadership, and systems to catapult a virtual chain of food co-ops to a position of prominence in the natural foods industry.

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