I’ve been following along in the Co-op newsletter as General Manager Alex Gyori explains the ongoing woes at the Brattleboro Food Co-op. In a discussion that has ranged from construction problems brought on by the bankruptcy of their lead contractor BayButt to the viccissitudes of Malfunction Junction, Gyori has enumerated a substantial list of “challenges” that the Co-op has faced since opening the new store last summer.
More recently, Gyori’s remarks have focused on the apparently very real problem of revenue. The new store has not brought in shoppers in the numbers and at the spending levels necessary to run the store as it had been run previously. Staff has been let go (some would argue that that process has been going on for several years now) and the Co-op has had to make cuts in discretionary spending of all kinds, including trips to conferences, long a point of pride for the BFC.
Although the newletter updates continue to discuss the various complaints shoppers have had with the new store, the BFC’s problems go beyond a confusing parking lot and bad lighting. The real issue is price.
I know many people who buy a few things here and there at the Co-op, either out of a desire to support them or convenience or a need for something only the Co-op carries. But I know very few people who do all their food shopping at the Co-op anymore. And there’s good reason for that. Not only are people feeling less financially secure than in the past, but the Co-op’s prices seem to be at an all-time high.
In this month’s Food For Thought, Gyori again addresses concerns about price. In one example, he describes a store practice in which they charge the same price for one or more similar items if their prices are within a certain margin of difference. Apparently a mistake was made in pricing sprouts where the lower cost item was priced up to match a higher priced item. Gyori says this rarely happens but it reflects an approach toward pricing that suggests that it is not always tied directly to cost. The mark-up can vary.
Beyond the mechanics of pricing, Alex Gyori provides a fairly standard list of reasons why the Co-op and organic products generally are more expensive and why we should buy them anyway. These include: shopping locally, factoring in higher costs of organic food production, and the higher quality of organic products. “Although price is an important determining factor for where we buy, we do need to keep in mind what we support with our food dollars,” he concludes. The implication — and it’s a valid one — is that it’s a moral choice and that people who care about the community will shop at the Co-op.
What is lost in this month’s defence of the Co-op’s pricing is the reality of personal income. People have what money they have, and moral choices aside, not everyone can afford the Co-op’s products, no matter how much better they are or how much better it would be for the community if everyone bought them. Moral choices about shopping are, to some extent, a luxury. If you have very little money, you will have a hard time feeding yourself out of the BFC unless you wish to live on brown rice. Ok, that’s a slight exaggeration as there are bargains to be found there, but the fact remains, your food choices will be more limited.
I’ve always felt that the Co-op needs to meet its shoppers halfway and provide products at a wider range of price points. This is the very opposite of price averaging. I also think that products such as Hood dairy— hardly an emblem of organicness — should not be priced significantly higher than they are elsewhere. When the price of something ordinary is noticeably more than in other stores, it makes it hard to justify the purchase unless your food budget is fairly generous. And frankly, if you can afford better, you’re not going to be buying Hood milk in the first place. The only people hurt in this example are lower income shoppers.
If the Co-op is waiting for the mythical rich people in the hills to come and save them, I fear they may be waiting a while. And if they think that people really can afford them but are choosing not to (as I’ve heard other local businessmen assert), there is the risk that that view may be off the mark as well. I know a fair number of people — the sort who used to spend freely even a few years ago — who feel pinched today. The Co-op appears to be holding out for a demographic that may not exist.
Whether there are unwilling affluent shoppers to be tapped or not, I think (turning the morality argument on its head) that one moral choice for the Co-op would be to try to supply products for a demographic that we know exists — low and middle income people — with the best quality food possible in a range of prices. No one expects that they’ll be able to match Hannaford on price but they might be able to at least get in the game with a real effort to find affordable alternatives.
Back in the day, the motto of retailing used to be “volume, volume, volume.” But if through your pricing policy, you reduce your customer base below breakeven, you’ve got a real problem. Windham County has less than 50,000 people all told, and only a relative handful of them are truly affluent. Meanwhile, the BFC needs all the shoppers it can get. A rethink of their inventory and pricing may not be a desirable option, but it may be the only way to increase store volume and keep the place afloat.