USA co-op grocers are sharing data for mutual benefit

Co-operative grocers in the USA are sharing information to analyse their performance National Co+op Grocers (NCG), a business services co-operative for retail co-ops, helps unify natural food co-ops...

Co-operative grocers in the USA are sharing information to analyse their performance

National Co+op Grocers (NCG), a business services co-operative for retail co-ops, helps unify natural food co-ops in order to optimise operational and marketing resources and strengthen purchasing power. The organisation includes 143 food co-ops operating over 190 stores in 38 states, with combined annual sales of over $1.7bn and more than 1.3 million consumer owners.

A long time partner of NCG, CoMetrics CoMetrics provides a data platform that helps members share data and analyse their performance. CoMetrics was founded 20 years ago and became a co-op in 2003. It serves 250 businesses in seven sectors, including retail, farm and funeral, as well as other non-co-op sectors.

The platform combines financial and operating data, enabling NCG to put together action reports. All NCG members have access to the data through the website.

“We need to have this information in order to be good business partners. It can be interpreted to be helpful in a lot of different ways,” explained NCG chief executive Robynn Shrader. NCG stores are financially liable; they guarantee each other’s payables.

“Having this level of transparency is important,” she added. “If a co-op is running out of cash, they can put pressure on early so that store and entire country are not liable for bills. It takes just a few minutes to upload the information.”

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Co-op grocers are facing a number of challenges in the USA, losing market share to competition, including national retailers and local wholefood retailers.

One great barrier remains gaining access to the right kind of capital, said Tim Ferguson, acting chief executive of CoMetrics. This is partly due to the banking sector’s misunderstandings when it comes to the structure of co-ops. Another problem is that NCG members are not opening stores as quickly as their competitors.

According to Mr Ferguson, over time this trend will affect their purchasing power. However, a new source of capital, mission-based investment, is emerging which could benefit co-operatives.

“In order for co-ops to compete it will be essential to find ways to collaborate as a system,” said Ms Shrader. Data collected enables NCG to learn and make better decisions. In the years to come, the co-op plans to carry forward five actions to take advantage of the opportunity to collaborate.

As well as focusing on purchasing programmes, it will continue to carry out customer research and publish marketing reports. Co-op grocers will have to tailor their services to the needs of the local community, said Ms Shrader, giving the example of a co-operative in Milwaukee that started selling food in hospitals and has now gone from one to four locations. But ideas like this “need support to become reality”.

The NCG has partnered with Cooperative Development Services and the National Co-operative Bank for Food Co-op 500, an initiative to start-up new food stores.

Another areas of work for the NCG is co-operative development. They provide members with support and advise in case of expansion, mergers or conversions. Members pay back for the service over time. “When you’re in trouble or going through an expansion you don’t need to be paying consultants,” explained Ms Shrader.

“Co-ops are very modest, and don’t tell their story enough. The data is the foundation by which you can tell a beautiful story.”

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