It’s All About the New Building
by Alex Gyori
At the top of my list this month, the completion of our long construction project! Sweet, sweet words indeed. I can safely say that I don’t miss the obstacle course we have called “the parking lot” these last two years, either. It is a time for celebration!
Co-op shareholders have demonstrated their appreciation for the new store, and as owners, have voiced and written many questions. I would like to offer some thoughts on several of the more frequent comments: the reasoning behind how we organized the layout of the new store, our relationship with local producers, and retail prices.
In designing our new space, the immediate reality check was the geography of the site and its effect upon the shape of the space. Providing enough room for smooth traffic flow, parking, and a visible front-store entrance were design elements that determined a lot of what followed. Inside, to feature local produce and floral, which offer the highest proportion of locally grown products, we wanted to put them first in line. Bulk food, a fundamental characteristic of our Co-op, occupies the next featured position, next door to produce. The best location for our cafe was clearly at the front, the deli counter consequently close by. For dairy, meat, and frozen foods, walk-in coolers needed direct access to the delivery dock. The cheese department landed squarely between its natural allies, deli, beer, and wine. Requiring lots of shelf space and straight lines, grocery took shape at the center of the store. Vitamins, supplements, health and beauty products were set up at the front for two major reasons: one, those products engender many customer questions; two, security, because shoplifters often set their sights on those items. The checkout and customer service desks complete the circuit near the exit doors. There is a coherent path through the store, yet given each customer’s needs, it can vary greatly.
Relationship with Local Producers
Generally, our relationship with local producers is productive and friendly. Our mutual interests do not always neatly coincide, but we have developed a good give-and-take over the years. The store needs to sell products at a reasonable mark-up, and it is not always easy to find a happy medium that will allow farmers to receive fair compensation while allowing us to assign retail prices that are fair to shoppers. Another issue that comes up once in a while is product placement. Placing an item in a certain location can create some dissatisfaction from a grower’s perspective. We try to accommodate their preferences as much as we can, yet there are many factors involved, such as whether an item needs to be refrigerated or not. We have made efforts in recent years to communicate the volume of products that we sell, so that producers have the opportunity to increase production to meet those levels. We often hear that to increase production, capital is needed and often hard to come by and, plain and simple, the weather doesn’t always cooperate.
This is a tough issue. We all want prices as low as possible. Natural and organic foods, locally grown or not, are inherently more costly to produce than conventional foods. When we moved to the new store, we carried over the same margin targets for each category to maintain a reasonable pricing structure. Rising wholesale costs have added to retail prices, as well.
We compare our pricing program with local stores fairly regularly. A recent survey of over 200 items, encompassing all departments, showed two things. First, competitors continue to carry a limited selection of the top-selling commodity items, not the full range as we do for many product lines. This makes it hard for a broad-based comparison. It would be more “apples to apples” to compare with Whole Foods, as their offerings are more similar to ours. Nevertheless, our sampling showed that we are at or better than the local competition in 50% of the items surveyed. Using this data, we also drew up a somewhat typical grocery list. The result was that we did better than one local competitor, and, when the 8% worker discount is applied to the total, the Co-op comes out ahead of both local supermarkets. I realize that this methodology is artificial because no one shops on such an average, but it is nevertheless instructive.
We will come to appreciate our new Co-op more and more over the years, as we have done several times before. Please join us in celebrating this new chapter in the story of the Brattleboro Food Co-op!