7 Tips to Successfully Manage a Retail Co-op

Values related to sustainability, community, and corporate social responsibility (CSR) have become front and center for consumers, which is why many brands have ramped up their CSR efforts over the last few years. 

However, it’s worth pointing out that some retailers have long been prioritizing these values. 

We’re referring to co-op stores. Also known as cooperatives, co-ops are stores that are owned and managed by community members. Unlike traditional for-profit businesses, decisions made by cooperatives are determined by members and consumers rather than third-party shareholders and investors.

As such, co-ops are more likely to exhibit social responsibility. A 2020 report by the National Co+op Grocers (NCG) found that co-ops are “leading the way in sales of organic, fair trade, B Corp and cooperatively produced products.” According to the report, 47% of food sales in co-ops come from organic products, compared with 3% at conventional groceries.

What’s more, 3 out of 4 food cooperatives provide needs-based discount programs for their communities, thus helping lower the barriers to healthy food.

Co-ops truly are a special breed of stores, and they’re worthwhile to pursue. If you’re planning to start one or if you already have a shop, the following co-op retail management tips will help keep things running smoothly. 

Keep your members engaged 

Members are the lifeblood of any cooperative. As a retail co-op, you rely on them to not only support the store but to actually run it. 

Needless to say, keeping members engaged is critical. 

Accomplishing that starts with establishing a vision that transcends financial gain. From there, you need to find members who share your vision and values. 

“One thing to know about co-op stores is that making a lot of profit is not a priority. This is why it can be difficult to keep members motivated if they’re more profit-oriented,” says Perry Valentine, founder at AtPerry’s

“Having a strong vision when starting a co-op store can attract and recruit members who share the same goals. By having this vision, in addition to promoting mutual help, you can establish a co-op store that doesn’t rely on having big profits to keep members motivated.”

Note that setting your vision and values isn’t a one-and-done activity. Strive to constantly reinforce them in your member communications as well as your customer-facing assets, including emails and your website. 

Offering perks and deals to your members can also increase engagement. Fredericksburg Food Co-Op in Virginia, for example, gives members access to exclusive offers, such as a 15% discount on case orders and a 10% additional discount on Co-op Deals.

Build strong relationships with local vendors

Access to locally-sourced products is one of the biggest draws of co-op retail. This is especially true today, when consumers are increasingly preferring to shop local. 

The good news is that most co-ops are adept at tapping into local food sources. Research by the NGC found that in 2020, the average co-op purchased from 185 local farmers and producers; those products went on to account for  22% of the co-op’s sales. 

Strive to meet and exceed these figures in your own co-op. Build and cultivate relationships with local farmers and prioritize their products when stocking your shelves. In addition to enriching your community, you may find that sourcing locally will greatly benefit your business, particularly as supply chain issues continue to get worse. 

As the NGC points out, food cooperatives fared relatively well compared to other retailers during the pandemic, thanks to their strong relationships with local producers. 

“During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, many grocers that rely primarily on national supply chains were unable to keep their shelves stocked. In contrast, many food co-ops were able to keep foods like meat, produce, eggs, and milk on the shelf because of strong relationships with local farmers,” states the NGC on its website

Hold regular meetings

“There are a few key things to keep in mind when running a co-op store. The most important is to make sure that the co-op members feel like they have ownership of the store and are invested in its success,” explains Morshed Alam.

According to him, holding regular meetings is key to staying connected with members. These meetings, adds Morshed, should “discuss the store’s operations and give everyone a voice in decisions made about it.”

The frequency of your meetings depends on your co-op. While some may choose to hold board meetings once a month or every quarter, others may do them annually. 

Whatever the case, ensure that your meetings are well-documented. Transparency is essential in any business, but its importance is more pronounced in co-ops because members are highly involved and invested in them. When members are kept in the loop, they’re in a better position to make informed decisions on how to manage the cooperative. 

The Urban Greens Co-Op Market does an excellent job at documenting and sharing its meetings. Urban Greens has a page on its website dedicated to Board Meeting Minutes. People can easily access meeting agendas, financial summaries, slides, and more. 

Document your procedures 

Speaking of which, you also need to ensure that your co-op procedures are well-documented and accessible to the right people. 

Identify all the processes you implement in the co-op — e.g., managing members, purchasing products, ringing up sales, etc. Take note of each step involved and have it typed up and stored in a secure folder (ideally one that’s cloud-based). 

Doing so ensures that team members have access to the information necessary to carry out processes. 

Digitize your processes 

You can further streamline your processes by digitizing them. Use business apps and platforms to automate tedious tasks and reduce human error. 

For example, rather than manually taking membership applications, see if you can implement the process online, so potential members can join your co-op through a convenient, self-service portal. 

That’s what Fredericksburg Food Co-Op is doing. On its website, people can easily fill out an application and pay their dues via a credit card or using a PayPal account. 

You can also digitize your in-store procedures by integrating certain equipment with site sensors. Solution providers such as Bindy provide commercial wireless sensors that can monitor temperature, humidity, and CO levels.  

These sensors can detect conditions that are outside normal thresholds and Bindy notifies the co-op team if anything is amiss. For example, if your store’s coolers start heating up unexpectedly, Bindy automatically sends an alert so you can take immediate action.

Pay attention to your retail data and analytics

If you’re already using digital tools to run your co-op, then you likely have access to data and analytics that shed light on your sales and product performance. Make it a point to review these reports frequently. 

Track your key performance indicators (KPIs) overtime, and aim to identify trends and insights that will aid your decision-making. 

For instance, product performance reports offer info on your top suppliers, which can then prompt you to increase your order amounts. On the other hand, sales data can tell you whether or not your marketing initiatives are working, so you can refine them accordingly. 

Evaluate and inspect your store regularly

How would you know if your co-op management practices are working? Simple: you need to audit and inspect your store on a regular basis. 

On-site inspections enable you to get a firsthand look at your co-op’s initiatives in action, so you can determine if they’re up to your standards. Are products displayed correctly? Do your staff members exhibit the qualities and values of your co-op? The best way to answer these questions is to visit your location. 

For best results, use an inspection and audit software like Bindy, which digitizes your checklists, schedules, and action items to streamline site visits. Bindy makes it easy to conduct inspections, document your findings, and ensure that corrective actions are carried out in a timely manner. 

Get in touch or take a free trial of Bindy to discover why more and more co-ops are choosing Bindy to inspect and audit their stores.  

About the author:

Francesca Nicasio is retail expert, B2B content strategist, and LinkedIn TopVoice. She writes about trends, tips, and best practices that enable retailers to increase sales and serve customers better. She’s also the author of Retail Survival of the Fittest, a free eBook to help retailers future-proof their stores.

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