Even though they carry green vegetables, most grocery stores aren’t necessarily model green businesses. After all, when you go to the grocery store, how much say do you have in where any of the food comes from? Probably not much if you’re shopping at a big chain grocer. Or how do you really know where the food comes from or if the people who picked it were paid a fair price? Unless you research all of the products on the shelves, you might not.
There is something you can do to change that. If you’re looking to get to know your food a little better, consider joining a cooperative.
A cooperative, or coop, is a business model that dates back to the origins of modern trade society. The Rochdale Society, founded in 1844, is typically considered the first successful cooperative enterprise and is the model for the modern coop.
A coop differs from a conventional grocery store primarily in its business structure. Coops are member-owned, member-governed and operate for the benefit of those members. Like conventional businesses, coops sell shares of stock, but unlike conventional businesses, there can be no majority shareholder. With a coop, everyone has an equal share, and you can only have one (share).
Tell me more about the governing structure.
Seward has just under 8,000 members. Those member/owners elect a board of directors, who act on behalf on them in terms of business decisions. The board of directors is responsible for hiring a general manager to deal with direct oversight and day to day operations. The general manager also hires the different department managers.
What are some of the advantages of belonging to a coop?
The primary advantage is having ownership where you do business, which means you have a say in what direction the coop takes. Members elect the board of directors, who are other coop members. We have governing documents, articles and bylaws, and members vote on changes to those.
There is a significant financial advantage as well. All members are entitled to a patronage refund, which is based on a percentage of how much you actually spend throughout the year, at the end of any fiscal year that is profitable. We have a quarterly 10% discount on one day of shopping. There are also discounts on cases and other large items, monthly member specials and coupon flyers.
How do you choose the products that you sell here at the coop? Is there a particular emphasis on local or organic?
We actually have this new program we just launched called Principle Six, or P6, named for the sixth of the seven guiding principles – cooperation among coops. We are one of six coops in the United States participating in the program. In order to get a P6 designation, a product must meet two out of three criteria: it must be local; it must come from a cooperative or nonprofit; and it must be from a small farmer or producer. Most of the P6 products we have in the store are products we have always carried. The idea is to give consumers a better idea of who is producing their food by doing special features, biographies and product spotlights. We have buyers for the coop that focus on those P6 elements.
Our definition of local is that it comes from the five state area that touches Minnesota. Obviously there are other products not produced locally, that can meet the other two criteria. We maintain really strong relationships with our growers and producers and we know the families where a lot of our food comes from.
How do you promote the coop or make people aware of these and other other programs?
We have classes here on how to shop at a coop. We teach people the little nuances of buying in bulk, bringing reusable containers and finding and using specials, like the shopping days. We do a lot of outreach and community education. We visit local campuses and some of the housing developments in the area and talk to the residents about the coop and how it can benefit them. We have a lot of group tours that come here to learn about coops – from preschool age up to graduate students who want to learn more about the cooperative business model. We also are visited by other business leaders. We gave a tour recently to the equivalent of the Secretary of Agriculture in Holland who was interested in the cooperative business model.
This building you’re in is fairly new. Did you adhere to any green building practices when you renovated and built this location?
The building is actually LEED-Gold Certified, one of the few grocery stores in the state to have that distinction. We rejuvenated a dilapidated site and designed it to capture and retain 95% of storm runoff, which feeds the surrounding garden and green space. We have a white roof, which has really helped in terms of energy efficiency. We installed solar panels that account for about 4% of our energy – which may not sound like much, but actually is enough to power several houses for an entire year.
How do you market the coop? Do you do any green marketing?
We have a multi-pronged marketing approach and green marketing is definitely part of it. We have a very dynamic website that we update nearly every day. We also use Facebook and Twitter quite a bit. Twitter has been a really powerful tool for our produce department, who use it to let people know about limited availability items or things that we just got off the truck. Our deli uses it to tweet the daily deli menu.
We do a lot of conventional advertising as well. We advertise on the Current (a local MPR station) and the neighborhood papers. We just shot our first television commercial, which was pretty exciting. We also rely heavily on word of mouth and the outreach we do, which helps us get in front of people we might not have otherwise.
Any advice on how to start a coop? Is it something that is easy to do?
You can find a lot of information on how to start a coop, and get a lot of support from NCGA – the National Cooperative Grocers Association. Their members are other coops who believe in the business model and really want it to succeed, so they invest money in start ups and coop expansions.
For more information on Seward Coop, visit their website or find them on Facebook or Twitter. If you’re interested in starting a coop, or would like to see if there is a member coop in your area, check out NCGA.