The Co-op: Two Realities

    There is a very lengthy and continuing thread about what constitutes a real co-op.  There is the modern Big Store (food) co-op and the Little Buying Club.  There would have to be a lot in between but we’ll leave it at that for now.

    The debate seems mostly to center around prices.  Big Store has high prices.  Little Buying Club would have cheaper prices (how much cheaper unknown).  Actually, Little Buying Club prices aren’t too much cheaper because they can’t get the volume discounts.  In fact the food itself is more expensive for that reason.  It can be sold cheaper because it has so much less overhead.  A private garage to receive and break down orders, all volunteer labor etc.  It can be cheaper still if it limits itself to bulk buying, avoids refrigerated and frozen foods and limits the selection to a couple hundred basic items and ordering just once a month.

    Big Store has high overhead.  It has lots of work and is staffed by people receiving the best wages and benefits the store can afford given the prices members are willing to pay.  It has all the expenses of a normal, full-blown business.  That’s what it is.  It gets deep discounts on inventory because of its volume but all the services, such as being available 80 hours a week rather than one hour per month, cost a lot of money.

    By specific definition of a co-operative Big Store generally comes a lot truer.  It is a more formal structure.  It has by-laws, democratically elected boards, member ownership, limited returns on investments and the several other pieces necessary to fulfill particular economic principles.  Modern ‘new wave’ co-ops have thrown in some social principles as well.  Little Buying Clubs are generally very informal, have no written agreements and rely on everyone sharing a similar sense or degree of co-operation and agreeing to and fulfilling a certain amount of the work required.  It’s quite interesting to observe the huge range of organizational behaviors within buying clubs.  It also very interesting to observe the changes as Little Buying Club (10 families) becomes Bigger Buying Club (10 to 100 families).  Funny how suddenly someone realizes that the word “co-operation” needs a little more definition!

    I might add that the cost of eating does indeed have a lot to do with how much one knows about cooking and nutrition and is willing to invest in same.  I’d guess that home cooking cuts costs by about a third, at least.  To help members with that Big Store provides classes in cooking and nutrition and helps groups bring good food to schools.

   Big Store and Little Buying Club each have their advantages and problems.  One size doesn’t fit all.  Members of Little Buying Club still shop in Big Store and I would guess some Big Store members would also be a part of Little Buting Club if there was one around.  In an off-hand way Big Store offers a distant variation of Little Buying Club by having periodic Truck Sales.

   So take your pick.  Don’t forget that there are a million variations of food co-ops between Big Store and Little Buying Club.  You can organize one to suit yourselves to perfection.  Make your own rules, set your own prices…it’s within the hands of everyone.  It’s all real.

Comments | 2

  • Good analysis

    There’s nothing to prevent the formation of a new “buying club” to operate as the Co-op did in the ‘70s. I’m too old to bother doing it, but maybe someone reading this will.

  • Thanks

    Thanks for the summarization of the two approaches we’ve seen in town.

    The smaller version seems more “cooperative” than the larger, which seems laden with overhead and systems, but also carries the risk of being less polished.

    I think there might be a third option – a big store that keeps inventory aimed at bulk items for cooking. I have sympathy for those who feel our current big store has an abundance of craft beers and wines, specialty items in small glass jars, expensive cheeses, and such. A big store with barrels and open boxes, rather than nice shelves, eco-lighting, or a pizza oven.

    The tough part, and what seems to be at the core of this, is that food is becoming too expensive for many people. That means hunger will increase, and demands on food shelves will increase.

    It’s isn’t just at the Co-op. “Natural” chickens at Hannaford have almost doubled in price in the last couple of years. A small chicken is $13. When I started cooking, a small chicken was about $3.50.

    Choosing the hormone-laden, cheaper version only gets you down to $7 or so. And then you worry about future health costs down the road.

    (If we had a Basic Income Guarantee, none of this would be an issue for anyone. Just sayin’…)

Leave a Reply