Co-op Prices

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.

Comments | 84

  • An interesting post, Lise. I

    An interesting post, Lise. I personally shop much less at the new co-op than I did at the old one.I find the prices on many of the things I used to buy there have doubled in some cases and everything costs significantly more. I live on a fixed income but I also recognize and practice the need to eat healthier and with local products. I’m a cook and I enjoy preparing and eating good food. But when I walk into the co-op and pick up an apple which then turns out to cost $4.60 – for ONE apple – I am not inclined to do much shopping there. I still occasionally shop at the co-op for bulk herbs /spices and when they have a sale on items I use a lot I’ll stock up. But I’ve gone from doing half of my grocery shopping at the BFC to probably about 5% of it. I understand the need for the co-op to grow but they undertook a costly and unnecessary venture with this new unwelcoming and over built building. Aside from the horrible lighting and the maze of confusion that they call a parking lot the whole place has a sterile and unfriendly feel to it. One of the things I loved about the old place was that it felt welcoming and was so small that you never got through a shopping trip without running into several friends or neighbors.A visit to the co-op was a pleasant excursion. No more. The layout of the store is a mess and makes no sense and -more to the point – no one looks happy. Not their customers and certainly not their employees. I will still continue to spend a good portion of my food budget on locally grown, organic and humanely raised food. But I will give those dollars directly to the farmers and growers at the farmers markets and at their own farms.

  • For the co-op to survive the economic downturn, it has to adapt

    I believe in the moral principle of putting our dollars into local businesses to help them thrive. But I agree with Lise; that’s a luxury that many of us cannot afford on incomes that are shrinking relative to inflation, at least not to the same extent that we used to.

    I will join with the co-op staff and shoppers alike in mourning those days. We all have to adapt, and quickly, if we are going to be able to weather this economic depression that currently affects us all. (Yes, depression — we are out of recession territory and into depression territory.)

    The businesses that can see the opportunities and adapt to meet their existing customers’ needs will fare better than those who hold out for a “recovery” or a return to the way things used to be. We aren’t headed there, and pinning our hopes on overly optimistic projections will just hurt us in the long run.

    One thing that I wonder about is whether the co-op is maximizing its plum geographic position as THE downtown grocery store — convenience store, even. For those of us in town, Hannafords is miles away. The co-op deli is the most extensive within walking distance of town. The location is bikeable, walkable, convenient for those who live and work in town. I wonder if a sub-strategy of providing basic items at more affordable prices would help open up revenue that is currently going to other stores.

    The co-op also has an extremely vital role in providing an outlet for local small farmers to sell their goods (and earn a living, keeping those dollars in the community).

    I have no doubt that it’s a very difficult prospect, balancing those needs and keeping prices from shocking people right back out the door. I’d like to think that our community is knowledgeable and principled enough that if there are two heads of lettuce side-by-side, one cheap and foreign and the other spendy and local, they’ll make the best choice their budget allows, even with that price disparity staring them in the face.

    We have to think outside of the box. The co-op is not going to be able to run on the same revenue expectations it has enjoyed for howevermany years. Times are changing very quickly in the economic world, and it’s pinching people all over town. This is not a temporary situation; it’s going to last a long, long time. (Have you heard this before? “The next twenty years are going to be completely unlike the last twenty years.” (For more info on that, go to or

    In order to survive, the co-op is going to need to do its best to meet the needs of those who can’t afford half or more of what it carries. Otherwise we lose those customers. I used to be one of those people who did 99% of my household shopping at the co-op. I can no longer afford that. I even forget about most of the (packaged) food in the “interior aisles” when I”m at the co-op because it’s too spendy for me. (I sometimes wonder who is buying all that stuff to justify the shelf space.) Now it’s back to basics — veggies, fruit, beans with a side of meat, rice and other whole grains.

    I do not envy the co-op board and the others who are so dedicated to running that business. I realize the building was expensive; it was a hugely risky decision in the middle of an economic downturn, leaving some of us scratching our heads. But now we have to cope with the consequences of that decision. Times are tough and getting tougher. We — the co-op community of shoppers and staff — can get through this if we’re prudent, patient, and willing to accept that it’s going to be tough for awhile.

    The co-op needs to carry goods from local farmers and producers to help keep our dollars in the community and help that infrastructure thrive. There will come a time when we will not be able to get potatoes from California or Mexico and we’ll be glad we invested in our local potato farmers who can continue providing for us locally (because if they fail, if WE fail to support them so they can stay in business, we lose that vital fallback option).

    The co-op also needs to carry basic staple foods at low enough prices for more of the community to be able to afford. (If that is currently a priority, I’m not seeing it.) Low and middle-income families are being hit hard by the economic slump, and many folks in the co-op neighborhood can’t afford to shop there. And never mind the prices, the co-op currently looks and feels like an elite grocery — unfortunately, this keeps away lower-income people who do not feel they fit in. (You can basically assume from the facade that the prices will be high.)

    Can we reach out to the neighborhood folks and draw them in — convert them into customers? (I’ve long complained that the Canal Street side of the building does not have a sign to welcome customers from that “side” of town…it unfortunately sends quite an unfortunate metaphorical message, that the co-op turns its back on that neighborhood.) Can we change the feel of our marketing to reassure folks that the co-op is everyone’s store? What about the days when the word “co-op” meant nothing more than a basic buying club with a dusty storefront, run by volunteers? How can we revision the co-op’s role and expand its reach to a wider demographic strip?

    C’mon — we are a community rich in smart, creative people. We can figure this out. We need our co-op to survive and thrive. Let’s find a way.

    • A moral choice

      “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.”

      I have no hate for the Co-op, and I’ll buy a few things there if I happen to be in town, but you can exercise your moral choice without ever setting foot in the co-op. Whatever they sell that is truly local can be purchased elsewhere locally. There are plenty of other local alternatives.

      *Edit: Sorry Amanda, this wasn’t in reply to your comment, it was in reply to Lise’s story.

  • coop shopping

    I still do all my shopping at the coop. It’s easy and close. There are special things at the coop- wellness & Deli (love the pizza and chicken) to name two. The move and transition was tough on everybody. I have noticed that the cashiers are more friendly now. I still get to have those golden moments of conversation on occasion in one section or another. Yes, the store looks hard and dark. I don’t like the chosen colors. I’m getting used to the look.
    I shop elsewhere for a few items that the coop doesn’t carry.
    The old store was sinking into the wetlands and the place had a funky smell. As it was dismantled we all realized how very timely it was to move into a clean new store.
    Parking is so much easier now. That used to be a terrible source of tension.
    As far as prices go, I hope that the coop listens to your comments. When I worked at the coop Michael Martin was overseeing the price comparisons. We were vigilant about prices.

    • I'm sure that there are some

      I’m sure that there are some people – like you – who do most of their shopping at the co-op (although,obviously those numbers are decreasing) But for most of us the cost of doing our weekly shopping there is just too far from our financial reality. There are certainly some things that the co-op carries that I like and continue to buy there ( shampoo; bulk foods, Putney Pasta) but that’s it. I have stopped buying produce there- I just go directly to the farms or farmers markets. And, for that population of shoppers that are a little older with waning eyesight-the co-op lighting makes it very difficult to shop. I don’t want my shopping experience to be a stressful occasion and if I’m struggling to even be able to see what I’m buying then that’s not for me. The lighting is a big problem, I think- both in terms of aesthetics and also practicality. My decline in shopping at the co-op is based on 3 reasons:
      prices; lighting; the unwelcome feel of the store (and staff ,in some cases)
      I ran a catering business in Boston for years and I know that your business is only as good as your employees. Unhappy employees make for an unhappy and unprofitable business.
      And, yes, there is more parking. But better and easier to navigate? Not so much. I just think they are in way over their heads and it’s going to take some major changes in how they run the co-op to get people to come back in larger numbers.

  • $$$$$

    Like many other long-time coop shoppers, I have been driven to purchase an increasing number of items elsewhere. Unjustifiably high prices on standard, widely available items is not a new problem there, but it’s gotten noticeably worse since the new store opened. I still buy what I cannot find elsewhere at the coop, but I have to buy less of it. Much as I hate having to go from store to store just for groceries, I now have no choice.

    And I am one of those who find the new store unpleasant; the logic of the layout escapes me. I assume the maze effect is meant to create a less industrial atmosphere, but, for me, it just adds confusion to the rather cold, dark, inescapably industrial ambience. I can’t wait to get out, usually without everything I came in for. And if an item I need is out of stock, I might as well forget about it for at least two weeks (it’s been as long as a month). “Just in time” stocking isn’t. I’m sorry to hear about the financial woes, but not surprised.

    • Prices.

      Chobani single serving size yogurts costs 46 cents more at the co-op than at another grocery store. I called and brought it to their attention. I buy 10-15 at time big savings for me to purchase it elsewhere. I haven’t checked to see if they adjusted the price. I only purchase meat products at the North End Butcher. I prdfer to support them.

    • $$$

      I’m sorry the coop is going thru hard times. Especially while the workforce is birthing a union there. As promised, I have begun shopping there now that there is a union, and I plan to rejoin as a member. But the hard fact is that the prices are astronomical to me; we used to complain that the prices were high, but they’re unsustainable in my life now.

      I will continue to shop bulk items, case lots when I can afford them and the occasional meat or dairy item (you can’t get Brown Cow yogurt anywhere else, for instance). I keep my eye on the sales and when I can afford them, buy what what I can. But for regular shopping it’s just beyond my wallet.

      • Huh... Imagine that.

        ” Especially while the workforce is birthing a union there.”

        “But the hard fact is that the prices are astronomical to me; we used to complain that the prices were high, but they’re unsustainable in my life now.”

        Could someone find the previous “union” discussion about the Co op? It appears that Mr.Mike was right on when he made this prediction.

        Aren’t Unions great? They force businesses to raise prices to pey the demands of the union until the business implodes.

        • right on target?

          Mr Mike,
          My understanding is that the difficult financial situation in which the co-op finds itself is primarily due to the costs and projections related to the new building construction, and that it has nothing to do with the unionization drive. In fact, it might well be that since the union has not even presented any contract proposal yet (and might not for many months),that there have been virtually no extra financial burdens on the co-op that can yet be attributed to the unionization of the work force.

          So maybe it is a bit premature to claim that your prediction was right on target??

        • I think building a multi

          I think building a multi million dollar store that was plagued with construction delays and unexpected additional costs has a lot more to do with the higher cost of shopping at the co-op than any union activity. Any business that takes on an expansion of this size is going to increase their prices somewhere along the line -regardless of whether they’re unionized or not.
          Your obvious satisfaction in “being right” is, I think, a little misplaced.

        • imagine what?

          There is no union yet, mikey-buddy. They have no contract, they have no salary agreement. Whatever’s going on with the coop has zip to do with the still-nonunionized workforce. I’m sure you don’t know how these things go because you so hate workers so I’ll give you a short course.

          1. a union is voted in by the workers
          2. there is a year of contract negotiations allowed before a contract is set and agreed upon. Which usually takes the whole year- in the coop’s case, sometime in the coming Fall 2013 there’ll be an agreement.
          3. a contract is signed and the agreements go into effect. Again, sometime in the Fall, 2013.

          So no mikey-buddy. You’re wrong, again. Sorry.
          The coop’s struggles stem from the behemoth of an unaffordable building. Not unlike what happened at NEC.

  • Debit Card Food vs Credit Card Food

    I have personal benefitted from the Co-ops existence. When I first I arrived here, I got a job working in the deli. It paid my rent, and allowed me buy my food, and tow rok in a great place. Some of my friends likewise work there still. So, I wrestle with the fact that I know it is the best place to shop, in terms of supporting local farmers, local workers, local everything, but . . .I cannot afford to buy my groceries there.

    I know that many different things go into the word, “afford”. If you want a good town to live in, you better factor that fact into any equation when using terms like, “afford”. But when I say that I cannot afford to shop for all my food items at the BFC, what I mean is, we are sinking into debt a little more each year as it is. I have very little in terms of retirement saved up, nothing saved for my boy’s college, and nothing currently in the pipeline for that. I literally do not have the money to spend on highly expensive food. It’s not that I am merely eager to save money, I don’t have it.

    The only way that I could “afford” to shop at the BFC for all of my food is if I were to use a credit card to purchase my groceries. By necessity, I need to buy my food with a debit card. It is not even a choice.

    • How to Support the Co-op

      Even though I cannot afford to buy ALL of my items there, I strongly encourage everyone to buy at there least, some items there every week. Brattleboro benefits in many ways from the co-op’s existence, and I not only wish it well, I shop there because I want it to continue to exist for a very long time.

    • something I don’t understand

      “(The only way that I could “afford” to shop at the BFC for all of my food is if I were to use a credit card to purchase my groceries. By necessity, I need to buy my food with a debit card. It is not even a choice.)”
      There’s something I don’t understand here. I have a debit card issued by RVCU. I use it for nearly everything, including all my purchases at the Co-op. They deduct the amount of my purchase almost immediately out of my RVCU checking account. No problem.
      I also have a “Defenders of Wildlife” credit card issued by Bank of America. I rarely use it. However, if I were to use it, say, at the Co-op or Hannafords, or wherever, it would not cost me anything at the time. In about a month, I’d get a statement. If I pay the statement in full, there are no interest or other charges. No problem.
      It doesn’t make any difference to me, except I may forget to pay BofA, in which case, they hit me with an interest charge.
      What am I missing?

      • Currently Debit card = cash Credit card = going into debt

        Our income is insufficient some months to cover our expenses, even though we live very frugally.

        Debit card = cash removed from bank account

        Credit card = going further into debt because we have depleted our current funds, and have to borrow from a company.

        I try to only use the credit card in an emergency, such as an unexpected car repair. We rarely are able to pay for car repairs without taking a loan from the credit card companies, and it just gets added to the growing debt load.

        Buying all my food at the BFC would necessitate borrowing money from BOA or some such, so as to eat, because the prices are so much higher than at the Food Barn, or Price Chopper. If I shop elsewhere, no loan is necessary. (And the Food Barn always has organic vegetables)

        • I get it now

          I guess I’m not as close to the edge as you are.

          • Hopefully we will soon move upwrd

            Actually, we hope to soon move upward and get far from the edge. We are in the process of doing so.

            Step one; Cease teaching part time. The math on part time teaching is clear.

          • LOL

            yuk, yuk, yuk.

  • high quality discourse!

    I am very impressed today with the quality and topics of discussion on ibrattleboro! I feel Lise has introduced, and commenters have responded, to a very needed discussion. Everyone has been honest, and respectful! As one who myself can sometimes contribute a snarky remark, I must say today’s ibrattleboro has been refreshing to read. Good work, everyone! And to bring in another topic from today, perhaps we can all strive to have quality free speech in many areas of our lives.

  • Is the Coop's Existence Threatened?

    Prices have always been an issue at the BFC. Whenever the topic of food buying has come up with people I know, that has been the complaint.

    Some of these other issues, are unfamiliar to me.
    I have not personally been to the new Coop that much – maybe 20 times. In my experience getting in and out is much easier now with the light than before.

    The real issue, as I see it is that the Coop’s leadership was counting on a substantial uptick in revenues – something like 16% – to sustain the new building. If they (we – our household are members) can not reach that mark, how long will it be before that building stands empty like Northeast Coops?

    • Building design.

      I was shocked as the construction progressed and I realized how out of place the design was with the surrounding architecture. Also anyone with any concern for their neighbors wouldn’t build so close to their property and obsruct their view. It seems like a hypocrisy, considering all the claims the co-op makes about community.

  • Perspective

    Allow me to put some things into perspective.

    Please Note this is my personal belief and does not necessarily represent the views of the co-operative or it’s employees.

    • This short video - although

      This short video – although colorful and cheerful – doesn’t say anything that most knowledgeable consumers don’t already know. I don’t think anyone is arguing that food and other products found at food coops are healthier, locally grown and produced and better for the environment and humans than those available at large,commercial stores. No argument from me. I have shopped at co-ops in every place I’ve ever lived -starting with a very small co-op in Boston that consisted of 7 families who met in a member’s garage to sort and pick up food. The problem with the BFC is that they are pricing themselves out of existence. When I’m in Greenfield or Northampton I make a point of doing some shopping at their co-ops because- although the prices are obviously higher than Hannafords -they are also significantly lower than the Brattleboro co-op. Granted they aren’t in big new buildings but they accomplish what co-ops are supposed to accomplish: they offer locally sourced foods and healthier alternatives than “regular” markets. I love co-ops. I love the concept; I love the feeling of putting my dollars back into local communities; I love knowing that I’m helping small farms and growers. It makes me sad that I can no longer afford to shop at my local co-op. But, I only have so many dollars for food and I want to get the largest amount of healthy food that I can for those dollars. And I find that I cannot do that at BFC. For what it costs for one bag of groceries there I can bring home 2 bags if I buy from the farmers market or directly from a farm.In terms of non food items- I don’t want to pay .99 for a can of cat food that only costs .45 at Hannafords. I can’t afford to do that.
      So, I don’t think the issue is that people don’t like or understand or want to support their local food co-op. The issue is that -for most of us-we cannot afford to support them. I think that the co-op board should have given more thought as to how they were going to pay for this huge, expensive new building.They knew that the revenues would have to increase by a fairly large percentage to pay for the expansion. I’m not sure that enough thought was put into thinking/discussing whether that was actually feasible. They built an unattractive, huge imposing building that has been successful in driving it’s shoppers away because of very high prices.

      • Don't forget to factor in the price of gas...

        You shop in the Northampton co-op and the Greenfield co-op instead of the Brattleboro co-op? I’ve shopped in the Greenfield co-op. It’s a nice co-op. I haven’t noticed any dramatic difference in prices, although the baked goods come from different sources. But Greenfield is a twenty minute drive south from Brattleboro. How much gas would you burn shopping there? After you count that cost, have you saved money? Northampton is 50 minutes south. You’d have to get a pretty big discount to make that worthwhile, unless you’re riding your bike both ways (in which case congratulations!).

        Farmers everywhere work hard to produce the food we eat. The point of buying local is to develop a realistic relationship with the land, and to get produce that hasn’t spent time in an airplane, not to play favorites. The farmers down in Hadley, or down in Atlanta, are just as deserving of your money as the farmers in Vermont, fond as I am of the ones that I know locally. Like you, I try to buy local stuff anyway, because in many cases it’s more energy efficient.

        But as someone else pointed out, produce in the co-op is labeled as to origin, and they even have those little “local hero” flags on the stuff that’s grown nearby. This is common to all the co-ops around here—they have those labels in Putney and in Greenfield too. I don’t know about Northampton—I’ve never been to the co-op there, at least in recent memory. So that’s really not a good reason not to shop at the Brattleboro co-op.

        If you can’t afford to shop there, that’s a good reason. It would certainly be nice if prices were lower. You can get a substantial discount as a working member, and they will find work you can do, so if that’s an issue I suggest you look into it. But aside from that, the co-op is the co-op we have. If you don’t like how it’s run, participate more in elections. We can’t un-do the building of the new co-op. It is what it is. If you would rather the co-op went away, and was replaced with some corporate outlet, vote with your feet.

        But I’m really happy the co-op is there, and I continue to shop there. It’s a great store, and I wonder if you have any idea how lucky we are to have such a nice co-op in a small town like Brattleboro. Could it be better? Sure. Do you want it to be better? Then participate.

        • hmm, the end of bananas?

          Well this is where it all gets terribly philosophical very quick, and speaks to pretty much what I was arguing against. You have perfectly good, well-reasoned points, and I’d be a fool to debate them.

          But fool that I am…

          Imagine if you will, (as Spoon apparently has imagined in one of his comments) the coop model extended to alot more than just one store in one town. Let’s say Brown and Roberts became a coop. And there was a coop clothing or department store. (I was going to add restaurant, until I reminded myself that we did have that, for awhile, with the Common Ground.) If I follow your line of reasoning, that’s alot of meetings to go to, and alot of voting to have to pay attention to. (Full disclosure: My rabbi once said to me, in exasperation, “Your generation loves meetings. You’d want a meeting even to go to the bathroom.” I felt put on the spot at the time, but I think he was right.) Maybe that’s why things have evolved as they have. Whether or not a coop model is an evolution or a devolution then boils down to politics, or in my view of the Bratt Coop, ideals vs pragmatism. And I suppose if now we must live in an era of slogans, then we must. But I doubt that a local producer looks all that heroic to someone, looking at one of those posters, who might in their heart want to buy that heroic product but simply can’t afford to. It’s probably stating the obvious, but I don’t think it’s too wrong to say that once upon a time, stores bought local because that’s just what was there, let alone all that was available. We can debate until kingdom come the good or bad value of any one product being shipped in from further than X miles away. But that, I’m sorry to say, is just a fact of life now. It’s absurd to think we can go back to everything local. I say all this fully understanding, and appreciating, the need of local farms.

          People will, no matter what, adjust to higher prices by voting with their feet. But the suggestion of voting/participating/debating/meeting for anyone that has the slightest question about this store, is asking too much. And even if you wish to argue that it isn’t too much, what *is* too much to ask is that someone support the “idea” of local farms, or local purchasing in general, because …(for whatever abstract reason you wish to conjure)… while at the same time ignorant of, or ignoring, the fact that they simply cannot figure out a real way to do it because of their income. It’s hard to imagine how someone can be even debating this fact. What do we need? Bloated stomachs? Famine?

          The point of this thread and debate was a very simple one: the prices at the coop are (not “are getting”, they “are”) beyond the reach of alot of people. I have suggested that they are beyond the reach of people that could otherwise be encouraged to come back and shop through methods that might be relatively simple were it not for alot of the ideals that have been put in place. It is hard to imagine how any “vote” will change the general working tenets, at least not without ALOT of meetings and ALOT of rancor and taking ALOT of time. Just the same it’s a simple suggestion. There are alot of well-reasoned arguments why prices are as they are, and I’m no retail manager and maybe I’m wrong, or naive, how simple it would be to accomplish. But if so, I feel it would be due in no small part because it might be asking too many people to change their outlook of what the Coop “means” in order to restructure pricing and/or bring in some more affordable things. (And yes, the new building may preclude any such discussion or possibility!) But to say that such people must first come and vote, is saying that there is some sort of level of participating they must pass other than simply being a customer, before their reaction to the store is heard.

          For me, that’s putting a stricter definition of community than I have. And at least in terms of having affordable food, a rather cynical reaction to the problem.

          • Why did co-ops form around food buying?

            I think you’ve hit on an interesting distinction, although I’m not sure how important it is. Another way to approach your question is to ask: why didn’t co-ops form to purchase things other than food, back when the co-op movement started? Or if they did form, why aren’t they still with us?

            I think that hits the heart of the matter, actually. The reason I shop at the food co-op and not at Price Chopper or one of the other big chains is that I’m a control freak. Okay, maybe that’s overstating it, but if I’m being honest, it does kind of boil down to that. Price Chopper and Hannafords decide what to carry using a complex buying system that factors in profit margin per item, customer willingness to purchase items, and various other factors. Their goal is not to feed me food on which I will thrive: it is to feed me food that I will keep buying.

            So if you go to these stores, you will find some wholesome foods, but you will also find aisles and aisles of junk—stuff that is not only bad for me, but is addictive, containing sugars, starches and other exciting organic chemicals in concentrations that affect the endocrine system when we consume them, so that we keep wanting more and buying more.

            If you want a bag of potato chips, or a bottle of soda, or a really sweet dessert, you will find a much better selection at any of these chain stores. You can get soda and chips and dessert at the co-op, but because the co-op is focused on delivering the food that control freaks like me want to be able to _choose_ to eat, what’s stocked on their shelves is a _lot_ healthier. There is less addiction-inducing food, and more health-inducing food. The focus is on stocking the shelves with quality, not with whatever hits the right tolerance/profit margin curve.

            So that’s why we want a co-op for food: because we want the process by which the products we eat is chosen to involve our preferences, and not what the market will bear. Why don’t we need a co-op for hardware? Frankly, because Brown and Roberts is already doing a good enough job, and they are selling mostly high-ticket items where enough people will pay extra for quality that they can survive selling quality rather than trying to hit the minimal quality versis maximal demand*margin curve. We could speculate endlessly about the economics that allow B&R to be a quality hardware store, but the bottom line is that it ain’t busted, so we have no need to fix it. The grocery market _is_ busted, and the co-op is how we fixed it, at least to the extent that we _have_ fixed it.

          • fair enough

            And likewise, you hit me back with very good points.

            On the other hand….

            I can only perhaps say “mea culpa” in helping this devolve into a bashing of the Coop. That really wasn’t my intention. Honest! If anything, I’m saying that the Coop could be blamed for making a series of decision that will end up bashing itself. But who knows really.

            But speaking for myself only, I don’t wish to get into a debate on what is broken and what is not. That’s too abstract. It does boil down to a matter of education as to how one eats. The Coop has served that purpose, without a doubt. But, in my opinion, whether that education comes from your family, a school, a book, a friend, or a store hardly matters. There are commercial stores that do this job too. And if the Coop is slowly losing customers/loyalty due to its prices, who is it really educating at this point?

            Maybe it’s obvious from my other remarks, but I really find the whole debate of coop vs “capitalistic” rather tiresome, and besides the point. I see the Coop evolve, for all intents and purposes, into for-profit entity, albeit one you can vote at. I see the “capitalistic” stores, at least the smart ones, evolve into a source for good food and nutrition, albeit one that reads your suggestions.

            Again, for me at least, there is no debate about that. The debate really is whether the Coop can manage to serve a broader range of customers than it currently has evolved into serving. You can throw out any sort of “issue” or “wish” or “principal” on why the Coop is important. That simply won’t matter to those that are trying to shop there but can’t, or are having a difficult time, let alone to the the “Wal Mart or P.C. type of shopper”.

            Maybe the Coop just can’t be all things to all people. But it would be nice if it stopped trying to be so pure. And I use pure in the broadest possible sense, because I’m not quite sure what I mean by that. :o)

          • I really disagree that you

            I really disagree that you can’t eat healthy if you shop at larger supermarkets. I alternate my grocery shopping between Hannafords and Price Chopper depending on what’s on sale; is there a basic like cat food that i can stock up on, etc. And-although it takes a little bit of meal planning and a little more time in the stores I can certainly find organic, good quality, non junk foods in both of these stores. Hannafords tends to carry more organic /local produce than PC but they both have aisles that stock healthier,organic foods and even snack foods like chips that aren’t going to kill you with each bite. I supplement what I buy there with shopping at the farmers market -by having a meat CSA ; by occasionally going to Trader Joe’s and doing the small amount of shopping that I can afford at the co-op. Eating healthier, organic and local foods isn’t as easy as eating junk unfortunately. But if you’re committed to putting good food on your table there are ways to do it that don’t necessarily involve going bankrupt by shopping exclusively at the co-op.

        • I don't make a special trip

          I don’t make a special trip to either Greenfield or Northampton to shop at their co-ops. But, if I am in either of those towns -which I am at least twice a month – then I include a trip to their co-ops to do some shopping. And, again, although I have not ever found anything that is actually half the cost of what the same item would be at BFC – many of the things I buy on a regular basis are significantly lower than BFC. Sometimes as much as 25% lower. That’s a big difference -at least to my wallet. So, it is worth the trip and I’m still supporting local growers and the co-op ‘concept”

  • more on pricing

    I love the deli with the gluten-free selections, as long as someone else is paying! I just can’t afford it anymore. I still get a few things in the Co-op that can’t be found anywhere else in town, but I don’t buy nearly as much as I used to. It’s hard to understand the pricing on little organic herb plants, 3.99, when Hannaford has the exact same plants from the exact same local organic farm for 2.99. I’m still supporting local organic farms when I buy that plant from Hannaford.
    I work with many very low income people who live within 5 min walking distance of the co-op and they just laugh when they hear mention of shopping there. Certainly isn’t your neighborhood grocery store.

  • Baybutt

    Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe the co-op stiffed Baybutt Construction a considerable sum. This in turn was one of many of the major factors in their bankruptcy . To this end, the co-op self recovered any over budget shortfalls mentioned above, thus mitigating that aspect of their pricing. I think they are pricing in anticipation of higher wages, higher benefits, and less demand for products then was projected to share holders in selling the new building. The Keene co-op is now running, they too are over priced with far more competition then Brattleboro. It will be worthy of watching to see which ends up circling the drain faster!

    • Like yourself I too have

      Like yourself I too have considerable interest and concerns about the co-op. Thus this past Monday evening I sat in on the monthly Board of Directors meeting. Among other things I had all the time I needed to review a very large wall chart listing about two dozen key indicators and how they have been changing on a weekly basis for the last two or three quarters. The numbers weren’t outstanding but they were very clearly improving steadily every week in almost every category. I also listened carefully to the monthly financial report and the latest discussions with the bank. A good way to characterize my impressions is that the fever has broken. The creation of their striking and nationally recognized new home took a lot more out of it than was expected. The co-op isn’t as healthy as it was a couple years ago but one would be foolish to think it isn’t going to come back stronger than ever. It appears, from the numbers, to be on that road.

      From your statements it is clear you are not an experienced businessperson or financier. Nor does it seem like you carefully followed this project. Otherwise you would know that the troubles with Baybutt began less than half-way through the project. The co-op had a solid agreement and contract with Baybutt that covered all the work, costs and exigencies including, of course, a final figure that would produce the finished product. The co-op would not have begun, and in fact a business or finance person would know that the banks would not start doling out any money until they were assured that all the financing was in place. A business person would also know that if the general contractor was in trouble half-way through a project it was from causes that began long before. Unfortunately it is the way of the world (can we say human nature) to hide our fears and troubles and threats until they are so severe that they cannot be hidden any longer. Isn’t it also the grievous fact that all too often we hide our troubles until it is too late to change the feared outcome? When Baybutt was negotiating for the right to do the co-op project the last thing they would want the co-op and the banks to know would be the threats they were facing. Like all of us would do they put on their best clothes, best faces and acted like they were on the top of the world. A good guess is that back home they were quietly praying that they could pull this project off and save their asses. They couldn’t. They were too far gone. By the way, as far as I know all the subcontractors who did the actual work have been fully paid. Also, I have been told by one high level manager at the co-op, that in spite of the difficulty that a few of the subcontractors had getting paid by the general contractor, they continued to do quality work. As far as I can tell the entire cast of characters, from the wonderfully helpful young fellows who managed the parking lot to the “suits” in the banks and boardrooms, performed with integrity, good intentions diligence and to the best of their ability.

      I have been in the position where I have had to make a big decision that was going to effect lots of other people. You look at big glossy pictures, read pages of descriptions and more pages full of numbers or specs or data, spend a lot of time talking with everyone you can, call references, digest, analyze and worry. You try to think of and consider everything. Like building a rocketship or planning a battle. At some point one has to have the courage to go forward. Not everyone can do that. We always hope that those kinds of people, the ones who are afraid of tough decisions or haven’t the skills to make good ones, don’t end up in leadership positions. Sadly, some do.

      Back to the board meeting. I have to add one thing that made a wonderful impression. After discussing all the current conditions and other ongoing business including their remarkable and never ending self examination (how well are we doing as a board) the agenda turned one of the more notable items. An item that can emerge only from a deep well of self-confidence. The 100-year plan. This feisty organization has just emerged from a wicked storm. Damaged, bedraggled, worn…but in one piece. It survived. It assumes it will flourish. It looks back and says, OK, we have now built one of the most unique and sizable businesseds and physical structures ever produced in this town. Been there, done that. What’s next? There must be a bigger mountain somewhere. Perhaps a co-operative town, or state, or country. Perhaps a community that can pull together instead of fighting each other to individually prevail.

      • Thanks for going to the board

        Thanks for going to the board meeting, and reporting back to us on it. That’s really useful information. The co-op is very important to me—I’ve been shopping at the co-op since before I moved to Brattleboro. There are things I don’t buy there because of the prices—particularly cereals. And of course we try to grow our own veggies, make our own yogurt, and shop at the farmer’s market, which takes the edge off. But I pretty much do all my food shopping at the co-op, and it seems pretty affordable to me. Good food isn’t cheap. If you want to be impressed by prices, head down to Whole Foods in Hadley… 🙂

      • hm

        perhaps. i appreciate the positive spin. and i’d be a fool to not appreciate all the diligence you say you’ve been a part of, even to the point of tooting the horn for your tooting your own horn. just the same, there is a glimmer of hubris in what you say as well. where does it say that a food market has to have a 100-year plan? (other than in the Coop’s own by-laws of course) where does it say that the Coop must be the center of the community, or it’s leader in this bigger mountain that you speak of? I could just as easily say you’re just reinventing the wheel. Cooperation goes on daily. Every time I see a bus pull into the transportation center, a postal clerk accepting my letter, someone stopping at a stoplight (instead of rear-ending me). But with a place like the Coop, politics is as politics does, and I find it just a wee bit disingenuous, if not disconcerting that the Coop is here to enlighten us all as to the meaning of cooperation.

        • hm?

          You say: “Cooperation goes on daily. Every time I see a bus pull into the transportation center, a postal clerk accepting my letter, someone stopping at a stoplight (instead of rear-ending me).”
          That’s absolutely true, but it’s cooperation with a small “c”. There’s another, higher meaning of the word which deserves a capital “C”.
          The International Co-operative Alliance has established seven principles that define co-ops as part of their Statement on the Co-operative Identity
          Principle 1: Voluntary and Open Membership
          Principle 2: Democratic Member Control
          Principle 3: Member Economic Participation
          Principle 4: Autonomy and Independence
          Principle 5: Education, Training and Information
          Principle 6: Cooperation among Cooperatives
          Principle 7: Concern for Community
          You can examine these in greater detail by going here: .

  • Relief

    As someone who has learned to shy away from the fray of politics, after learning what a blood sport it can be, I am very relieved to see so much comment on this, and I commend Lise for having the chutzpah to be front and center on it. That there are so many comparable comments suggests that alot of us are not particularly isolated in our skepticism for the whole project. I did once make a comment to someone who was directly involved with the decision to do this (not Alex) and she said that if Alex didn’t do it he’d be out of business. I didn’t pursue the point, as I wasn’t privvy to whatever debate took place about retrofitting what was already there, vs a more modest design, or what have you. And it bears remembering that there were high prices in the old coop too.

    I for one have not set foot in the new coop for much the same reason I haven’t set foot into a Whole Foods store but for one time, and that was unnerving enough. Bigness can be good if it results in comparable savings in price, and that’s why I will find myself occasionally in a Home Depot. Once I started hearing word about high prices at the new Coop, it hasn’t exactly made me any more eager to enter. Full disclosure: when the Coop moved from it’s hole in the wall situ on Flat Street into the big new digs it has had, I experienced the same reserve I’m feeling now. It’s just that now I’m finding myself holding out alot longer.

    But the other thing that I found increasingly difficult to cope with was the undercurrent of “should” in food purchases. When you walk into Hannafords (which it should be noted is making a strong push against gimmicks and in-your-face sales) you have the relative privacy of just shopping without anyone doing the thinking for you. But with the constant posterage, newsletter talk, and high-minded mission statements that the Brattleboro Food Coop has place for itself as a duty, it’s hard not to feel that someone’s watching. Produce side by side stating “conventional” vs “organic” is of course educational, but it is also subliminally suggesting you’re going to the dark side if you buy that “conventional” lettuce. Or is that just me?

    And the same could be said for the local farmers and producers. I got into a debate once with a regional canned food producer about the price of his products, and he went on and on about this or that ideal he was trying to meet. Lately now he’s offering shares in his company, for a product that is not exactly digested on a regular basis. I read some comments how people prefer to go to the farmers market instead. That’s fine, but it’s not that hard to point out some similar “chi chi” pricing on alot of things simply because they’re hand made or harvested with care.

    High minded ideals are nice and comforting in the ways they can unify people. But that doesn’t make them perfectly right. Thomas Huxley said, “The great tragedy of science, the slaying of a beautiful theory by an ugly fact.” And I recall reading a very ugly fact from a UN food expert out of Geneva, saying that if the world went fully organic we’d have mass starvation. History is full of alot of ideals turning things so upside down that they fail miserably and create an opposite effect.

    I like to believe there is a way to be real, positive and, dare I say it, progressive in the way we see and eat food without making everything into a necessary “ism” or creating such stark do or die choices. Certainly the Coop has been a force for good. But I think, apparently with alot of others, that with this pricey real estate on their backs, there is going to have to be some serious rethinking on how they present us our food choices. That is to say, they might have to get alot more pragmatic.

    • Is that just me?”

      Quote: ‘But the other thing that I found increasingly difficult to cope with was the undercurrent of “should” in food purchases. When you walk into Hannaford’s (which it should be noted is making a strong push against gimmicks and in-your-face sales) you have the relative privacy of just shopping without anyone doing the thinking for you. But with the constant posterage, newsletter talk, and high-minded mission statements that the Brattleboro Food Coop has place for itself as a duty, it’s hard not to feel that someone’s watching. Produce side by side stating “conventional” vs “organic” is of course educational, but it is also subliminally suggesting you’re going to the dark side if you buy that “conventional” lettuce. Or is that just me?”

      I think it’s just you! What would you have them do? Put all the organic stuff in one location and all the conventional stuff in another so you don’t feel guilty buying it? Get over it: Nobody’s watching you.

      I have today’s Reformer sitting on the table next to me. In it there’s an 8 page advertisement from Hannaford that says in large letters on the front and back “WOW! AMAZING EVERYDAY SAVINGS. Price Chopper also has an 8 page supplement, but the pages are twice as big as Hannaford’s. Market Basket has one that’s even bigger still.

      This is called “Marketing”.

      Hannaford and PC have posterage all over the place, in case you haven’t noticed.. They also push stuff in your face with things like bananas in the soup aisle, and end of aisle displays featuring impulse items.

      How about all the candy and pulp magazines at the checkouts?

      As far as the newsletter talk, the BFC is a MEMBERSHIP organization. Our members are the OWNERS. What do you think Hannaford sends to its stockholders? I’m sure they have a high minded mission statement as well.

      I think that you have to realize that a Co-op is a different kind of enterprise. They subscribe to a different set of principals than just making a profit. You can find out more by going to: Click on the tab “About Co-ops”, and then “Principals”

      All of that being said, it’s essential that any business has to be competitive in some way to survive. For some, it’s low prices. For others, it’s service. For some, it’s even “Image”.
      I think the Co-op needs to take a new and different approach to its pricing structure. One suggestion might be to lower prices on staple items that could be seen as “essential”, and to raise prices on items that might be more “optional”.

      • Hello, it's me!

        You raise alot of valid points. Please allow me to rip them apart as best as I can.

        Of course Hannaford markets, as do the others. (And full disclosure: I get so desperate for reading material while eating lunch sometimes, that I find myself gazing at all the pretty food pictures, imagining what else I could be eating…but again, that’s just me). My point about Hannaford was a relative one. Certainly in comparison to Price Chopper with Price Chopper Radio and their myriad screens, Hannaford is like walking through the Garden of Eden picking up a few cherries off the tree, er bin. I only used them as an example of a NON-MEMBER grocery store and the relative feeling of privacy I have in shopping there for a tomato vs the more, to put it kindliest, educatory experience I have at the Coop. Of course Hannafords (which is owned by a conglomerate out of Belgium, in case you wish to attack that) has a mission statement. My point, if there is one at this point, is that I don’t feel it incumbent to learn it like I do at the Coop. But I take your criticism. Maybe that’s just me.

        However. Look. I started with the Coop back in the days when we were ordering in 50lb bags of flour and rice and voluntarily bagging them up. I understand what the Coop … was. I’m not so sure what it has become, other than a never-ending series of principles and voting procedures and what-have-you. I’ve personally decided it isn’t for me and I stopped being a member long ago. Therefore, that means, of course, that anything I say about it is, at best, to be taken with a grain of salt, and at worst, to be immediately disenfranchised. Right?

        When the Coop started looking like any other grocery store: when it had things, if not candy certainly other googaws, at checkout; when it had video rentals; when I discovered, albeit thankfully once, the bulk food prices of King Arthur flours were more expensive than the same King Arthur pre-bagged, I started wondering what the difference was from other stores, at least other than the comparison bins of “organic” and “conventional”. I get the message. I get the local thing. I get the organic thing. But I think at least someone as savvy as Alex knows that Hannaford’s gets it too. They have already instituted many of the things that the Coop has long done: bulk bins, organic produce, local producers. But they also have a keen eye on a wide range of customers, and they do not make any assumptions. In fact they cater to those with limited and fixed incomes. And I find that laudable, mission statement that I can read or one that I can’t unless I become a shareholder. Doesn’t matter to me.

        • I'm having trouble

          I’m having trouble understanding where you’re coming from, Toyboy. You clearly state that you have a place in town, a different grocery store than the co-op, that caters to your needs. Are you not satisfied? Are you not satisfied enough? I don’t resent the Oasis and Newtons Mens clothing because it would be unwise for a person with my modest income to attire myself at such places. Experienced Goods has plenty of good enough stuff for me. Should a renter resent a person who buys a house? Should the Robbs and Thurbers be resented and boycotted because their farm products are more costly than Wal-Mart?

          I’m looking at your posts as a whole and trying to decipher what information you want or what it is you want to understand. Excuse me for digressing a moment but let me say that you seem to be suffering from the same lack as almost every kid that has gone thru an American public school system. You don’t think critically and thus formulate good questions. Schools don’t teach this because, in fact, the last thing they (those that run the schools) want are kids who can ask searching questions. In fact nobody in power or authority wants people around who ask too many questions. (To digress even further, a story: my father was a high school teacher. Sometime in the early 70’s he brought in a very articulate Vietnam vet to talk about his experiences in Nam. Afterwards the students were quite abuzz and it didn’t take long to catch the attention of the administration. They were not happy. In another year or two all the boys were going to be assigned a lottery number. The administrators believed there were things these boys shouldn’t know).

          You CAN ask, Toyboy. Then we can talk about the assumptions you have that lead to those questions. Then I can share the assumptions that I make and we can compare. We can see where we differ and then seek information that will support or dispell our notions and assumptions. Is this a reasonable approach?

          • well...


          • Totally agree

            “In fact nobody in power or authority wants people around who ask too many questions.” – Spoon

            Because of that very assertion, I am not sure “smart” questions, answers, or people, will resolve conflicts and conundrums. We have thousands of libraries chock full of smart questions, and logically deduced answers to them, in endless numbers in universities around the nation and the world, including any number of social ills; such as poverty, mental illness and its causes, wealth disparity, racism, global warming, economic and other social disparities, etc. Yet, these problems remain and more continue to pile up every year. Our planet is in a fight for survival (according to scientific authority) and humanity, societies and the quality of human and animal life continue a downward spiral.

            Jeepers, we can’t even get the community in a town of 11,000 people (1/3 of whom are college educated) to shop at the locally owned and operated Co-op, or agree when planning the development of a 10,000 sq. ft. skatepark utilizing the single most authoritative source of planning one available, as well as the language in our Town Plan (to name only a few authoritative sources to guide us).

            I think we don’t give enough consideration to individual and social values, beliefs, perceptions and the concepts of trust, power, politics, and what exactly sustains authority, when trying to understand where people are coming from? It seems it is a much bigger picture than poorly educated people not asking “smart” questions? Many of your own questions to BoyToy, Spoon, seek completely personally subjective replies?

            I think failing to understand where people are coming from is more about “smart” people not being able to convince those they wish would just agree and simply follow them after hearing their smart answers. A relevant question is, “Why do so many people who do not know how to ask smart questions not believe or follow those with smart answers to “smart” questions?”

          • vice versa

            the name is toyboy, pardner.

            as for Spoon, he asks and answers his own question. which is why I decided it best to remove my “answer”.

          • Good Question

            It is important to find out where people are coming from. How does one do that? One way, I think, is to listen carefully to what they are saying and try and compare what you hear with what you’ve heard, learned, experienced. There is always an element of guesswork however. That’s why it’s important to know how to ask good questions. Unfortunately too many people react to any probing question with suspicion if not as an attack. To repeat a statement I heard from a teacher at the outset of a course on ethics: When you ask a person what they mean by what they say, nine times out of ten they become angry or silent. I’m sure that one mark of a good teacher is to get listeners to shift from the nine category to the one. The irony is that directly asking a person what they mean is in fact one one of the quickest and easiest if not best ways to understand them.

            Your final question, Zippy, is quite provocative. I’d love to answer and I will despite knowing that I might be walking into a morass. I’ll explain that in a moment. First, my answer. A person believes what fits their reality, or frame of reference. A classic example: for most of the history of humanity people believed the earth was the center of the universe. It was obvious and undeniable. Every day the heavenly bodies arose in the east, set in the west and came around again to the east. Every human saw the same thing. Can there be more certainty that that? Then a smart person came along. Or was it a “smart” person?

            OK, I just shifted, with that last line, from smart person to “smart” person. Wow, is this a mind game or what? (The morass). Not really. I’m making a point about words, language and questions. Did you notice that in my post to which you responded I used the word “good” (questions). You referred to it using “smart” questions. Actually, “smart” and smart questions. Do I correctly understand you to mean questions that are fair (smart) and unfair (“smart”)? Once it is clear what you mean by those usages it should be easier to see if my questions to toyboy were smart or “smart.”
            I also wonder, based on what you wrote, if there is also a connection between smart as objective and “smart” as subjective. Are objective questions fair and subjective questions unfair?

            Two guys are on adjoining stools in a diner as they sip their coffee. Neither know or ever thought about the other’s sexual preferences. As it happens they had both gone, alone, to the same movie the previous night. The gay fellow saw the straight fellow there but not vice versa. The movie contained a hot, explicit but reserved scene. You see clothes being thrown on a chair and the floor, then, from the shoulders up only, two actors, both men, passionately kissing. The straight coffee drinker says, “you know, you have to wonder these days about the morals of our local theater.” His gay companion says, “what do you mean?” Was the companion being smart or “smart?”

          • speaking of a morass

            I will ponder your well-taken points.

            “you seem to be suffering from the same lack as almost every kid that has gone thru an American public school system. You don’t think critically and thus formulate good questions.”

            I guess when I read your comments I quote above, it read to me more like you were making an accusation about ToyBoy’s “lack” in critical thinking skills and ability to formulate “good” questions, rather than sticking to your own questions that sought to clarify what he was saying, or asking?

            In the absence of using any words, language, or questions that incorporated the notion of a collective “we” I believed you were suggesting that you do not lack critical thinking skills and an ability to formulate “good” questions. So, I started wondering about questions related to beliefs, values, perceptions, and power, politics, and authority and how it is sustained, etc. That always makes me wonder how, in a society so fixated on measuring “smart” (a subjectively derived and defined concept)and intelligence (a concept that incorporates “good” critical thinking skills and a (good, better, best) ability to abstract and understand complex concepts, which can be measured)that questions that challenge power, or the status quo, are often not viewed as “good” questions, or the “right” questions, even when they reveal what a person really wants to know more about? Then I reread your reference to ToyBoy’s “lack” and your assertion that he does not think critically and, thus, cannot formulate “good” questions. So I subjectively substituted the word smart and “smart” for your use of the word “good”, as that made sense to me based on what I was reading (again, your points are well taken).

            Which now raises other questions for you: Did the people who once believed that the earth was the center of the universe EVER ask a smart question about anything during their lifetimes, even if they did not question other possibilities for a common observation regarding the movement of the heavenly bodies? Or did they possibly look upward and question if the earth was actually not the center of the universe, or why the heavenly bodies appeared to move the same way, day after day, but simply did not speak their questions because they were busy hunting, working, planting, plowing, digging, having and feeding babies, etc. or because they somehow feared asking such a question? Then, suddenly, a smart or “smart” person could ask, and did, and got all the credit in the history books? And, did the smart or “smart” person ever ask a dumb (or not “good”) question, or did he ever miss something that others thought obvious? Or was he always smart about everything? Is smart a perpetual state of being, or does it come in flashes? Is it enhanced by social factors, or is it always organic? Can smart (even if smart is “good”)ever be corrupted (i.e., not “good”)? Have I answered your questions?

        • yup

          “Therefore, that means, of course, that anything I say about it is, at best, to be taken with a grain of salt, and at worst, to be immediately disenfranchised. Right?” – toyboy

          Yes, that is what is at the heart of “community”, or at least in some communities. 😉

    • Sorry for the length of these remarks...

      Over the years I’ve worked for both the retail and wholesale sides of the food distribution business. From my perspective (with which many will not agree) Organic was given a capital “O” and marketed as a specialty item in order to provide a better return on the investment dollar and labor hours to organic farmers and food producers. The effect of this move raised the prices paid at retail – which in turn meant that good clean food became an item marketed to those financially able to become regular purchasers of the product. That required a bit of an “educational” push about what we are eating, which at the time was not as well known as it is today. After seeing the profits available, the big wholesalers and retailers moved in, putting organics into a corporate environment which, based on volume, could undersell places like our Coo-op. Education became even more necessary to bring pressure to define Organic as a term – a corporate farm could, at the time, organically raise, harvest and market Monsanto’s genetically manipulated corn or soybeans as an organic product. Thankfully that got changed.

      At our local Co-op, there are many factors which have driven pricing beyond the reach of many of the people who created it and who became members years ago when it was a now almost quaint “buying club”, which then moved into the retail marketplace to fill a need. Many of the product lines are now owned by corporations whose interest is the higher price charged, not the availability of good clean food. They (middlemen) keep the prices higher than they need to be in my opinion. Then there is the matter of higher salaries. I had a discussion years ago with Alex about high salaries for Co-op executives (always executives, rarely the people who do the sales floor and stock work and have to be knowledgeable enough to discuss the product with the purchaser). His belief then was that high executive salaries were needed to keep the kinds of managerial, purchasing, and marketing talent that would keep a Co-op such as ours alive versus the corporate competition.

      I haven’t stayed up with the marketing to say that this sort of thing still goes on, but the manufacturer side of the business used to have “sale” periods during which particular goods were wholesaled at a lower price – lots of stock expected or on hand, creating markets, etc. Those items were sold at a lesser wholesale price for anywhere from 5 or 6 weeks to a couple of months. The effect was many retailers putting an item “on sale” for one week while using the extra income from the rest of the sale period to pad their profit margins. The price break didn’t make it to consumers for the entire period.

      I’ve never thought having “conventional” product was supposed to somehow comment upon Organic product. Our Co-op used to have both a number of years ago. When definitions of “Organic” were put in place, so were other requirements for the farmers and the retailers – things like not having conventional produce stored over top of Organic produce – wet conventional could drip pesticide residue onto the Organic, etc. Many Co-ops stopped selling conventional rather than deal with the costs involved, leaving only the higher priced spread. Which further reduced the number of people who could afford to shop at those Co-ops. Most co-ops take pains to make sure that their conventional produce is “clean” (free of pesticides, growth products, etc.), but there isn’t a clear retail definition for that; “clean” versus “Organic” hasn’t been defined and marketed.

      Under such pressures, how would a co-op respond? Some kept true to their buying club roots and tried to keep prices buying club low. Others became more like the corporate businesses which were trying to imitate the co-op style. Those stores kept their high executive salaries, kept their higher price points, lost market share, and responded to that decline by raising prices and promoting their difference from the corporate stores by touting their “Co-op” alignment – those “educational’ maneuvers which, in my opinion, were nothing more than marketing meant to disguise the fact that they were no longer real co-ops, but had become large businesses paying the people at the top large salaries, deriving their investment from many “shareholders” (i.e. corporate style) rather than many “owners” (as the CEO of Northeast Co-ops once said, “Ownership is NOT management”).

      Now that the Co-op employees are forming a union, I’m trying to shop there again. But my purchases are very limited. I am a Co-op member and have been since 1995. I’m retired – I can’t afford good clean food, not at the Co-op prices. It is a luxury item now, something for rich folks to stay healthy while the rest of us grow fat on hormone injected pesticide resistant food with genetic modifications to put fish cells into things like chicken feed so that the omega-3 content of eggs is higher because that is what sells (for now).

      Some things at the Co-op do have a better price point than conventional stores. One of our local supermarkets had a $10.99/lb price for several years for Green Mountain Coffee beans, a Vermont company. The other supermarket sold the same product at $8.99 cents per pound. Until chain executives came to town. Shortly after their visit to the other store, the price of Green Mountain coffee beans was raised to $10.99/lb. I asked why the price was raised, and was told that Green Mountain had raised their price. As it happens, I know people at Green Mountain and I asked them what was going on. Their reply was that the store had raised the price – not them. Did the store which raised its price use that extra two dollars per pound to lower the cost of other items? Or did it just take the money and run? All I know is that at the Co-op, when it is on sale every couple of months, I can buy Equal Exchange coffee beans for $9.99/lb – and that particular company pays a higher, fair price to the farmers who raised and harvested the beans.

      The way I see it, the co-ops had to learn to be businesses in order to survive. Unfortunately, in my opinion, while doing so many forgot their roots, and forgot that price is important. They expanded, and built newer “greener” buildings. The big corporate stores are on the edges of towns, often poorly kept up, in shopping malls where there is plenty of parking. It’s the Co-ops who stayed in the downtowns, bless them. Many are offering conventional produce again as a sop to the working classes who otherwise won’t come in the door after years of (what I see as) price gouging and “educational” sloganeering. See – we’re affordable! Yeah, sure.

      The new co-op is not to my taste, I find it an awkward place to shop. If there are signs and sloganeering for that “educational” experience, I must have grown good at ignoring them as I sure don’t see them. I WANT to support the co-op. Aside from personal opinions about management style and decisions, which in my view contributed to driving the prices at our local co-op out of the reach of everyday people, my heart and my brain want to support the co-op. My pocketbook can’t do it. Price matters. And good clean food should be a right, not a luxury item.

      • Thank you

        This reads like a Harper’s article! :o)
        Cut and paste and save.

      • Insightful Commentary

        Informative, well-written, heart-felt.

        Thank you, Stevil.

      • good points

        Steve, you hit some superb points. I’d like to reflect on several of them but it’s late and one will do for now. That point is leadership. The bottom line is that it is damned difficult to find a progressive thinking person who can be and wants to be a businessperson. At least, on the secondary and higher levels. It’s not so hard to find a few on the retail street level though even there they aren’t abundant. Bookstores usually, a resaurant here and there, a hemp store, a tea and herbal store, maybe a canoe outlet. Get up into something doing a few million dollars in sales, in itself a pretty small business, and outside of a handful of food co-ops there is precious little. Not in this country, anyway.
        The single greatest worry I have for the Brattleboro Food Co-op is about who, when the time comes, will succeed Alex. Who, that is, will be the person that could oversee a 17 million dollar business, envisions and brings to fruition one of the more remarkable buildings in the country and maintains active and positive relationships with and genuine respect from the local capitalist business community, local government and co-op leaders across the country and at the same time be totally versed, committed and active in incorporating, maintaining and building Co-operative ideology? Any vounteers out there? Pay is good. Your managers are very experienced and good people to a person. Nice office. Good coffee just downstairs. Should be a lot of qualified candidates, right? Right?

        In 1979 I received a phone call. It was one of the greatest moments of my life. It was from a member of the Warehouse Collective of the Federation of Ohio River Co-ops. I was accepted to join the Collective. They had an opening for a truckdriver and I could start as soon as I could get there.
        A collective that ran a co-operative food warehouse! Let me say, at that time and that place, well, it didn’t get better than that. It was five bucks an hour, soon to be six. We all got paid the same. We met weekly and collectively made decisions. I’ll skip over the next two wonderfully dynamic years. The co-ops were growing by leaps and bounds. A half million a year in sales out of our warehouse became one million and raced to two million. Then the hip capitalists noticed that a great new market was just developed. The demand, the market, for natural foods burgeoned from a half million dollars to five million to fifty million in a few years. And the co-ops had it all outside of a few “pill wall” shops like GNC’s. A few of those hip capitalists might have traded their suits for jeans but they still knew how to develop products, leverage buyouts and find venture capital. Suddenly the co-ops weren’t alone. The fight was on. But we at the co-ops, good minds and great spirits all, really didn’t have a clue about the finesse of successful business. We were sinking fast. We had to learn fast. There was no one in the co-operative world to turn to. Canada maybe, but not here. A tremendous ideological battle broke out in the collective. Half were certain that we were going to have to become mean and lean and a lot more savvy, and fast. They were convinced that we had to bring in a traditional manager, who would understand how to play the game and show us how. The other half were certain that once we brought in such a manager and followed the conventional path we were doomed anyway. I was in the latter group.

        In the end we killed the collective, established and empowered a board. It was fits and starts for a long time but sales grew. The staff, now referring to ourselves as employees, grew. Eventually there were low but livable wages and decent benefits. No, better than decent. Exceptionally good benefits. They made the low pay tolerable. It was a long and remarkable story for the next 20 years. The two million dollar warehouse became five million and by 2003 125 million. Eleven collectivists became 150 workers in a traditional hierarchy. Then it all died. It was Northeast Co-operatives then, and its home was Brattleboro, Vermont. There simply wasn’t anyone with the skills to run that big of an operation with the until-death-do-we-part commitment to co-operative principles. Too much resistance deep in our culture, deep in our bones. Too much wealth and comfort to take the risks and make the sacrifices. In the end the co-operative principles, for most of the staff, was something they heard about when they were hired and after that just a page in the back of a book on some shelf somewhere.
        It’s not easy to walk the walk.

        • Death of a co op

          N.E. Co op was led over a cliff by a very arrogant CEO that was surrounded by people who really did not know the nut’s and bolt’s of running a successful large business. He ignored good advice and over built a facility that they could not afford.
          It’s very hard to reinvent the wheel. They paid the price for hubris.
          In all this talk about our own Bratt. coop and pricing, no one has mentioned some very successful models that have bridged the gap between local folk that just want good prices and the folk that can afford to buy strict Organic products. I am refering to the Hanover and Lebanon Co op’s just about 1 hour north from Brattleboro. You have there a pair of coops that between them do over 60 million a year and offer great pricing on both conventional and Organic’s and happily mix them up in such a way that it all seems normal! Happy,well paid store personal that make you feel welcomed. Why that model was not employed here is beyond my understanding.
          As a member and one of the original vendors to our local coop, I am very concerned but I do think things are improving.

          • Northeast - and FORC - and Blooming Prairie

            It has often been said that Northeast was done in by its expansion. My personal take is that this is what people wanted folks to think. There was a lot more going on in my opinion. Certainly the cost of the rushed phase two (an expansion of the new building, being the portion that suffered a roof collapse a couple of years back) was involved. But let’s not forget that it wasn’t only Northeast. Northeast had just partnered with a smaller wholesale coop in Ohio, FORC. And Blooming Prairie, another large cooperative wholesaler in the mid-west also suffered problems which led to its sale to the same company, United Naturals, which bought Northeast/FORC.

            A lot of people will disagree with my interpretation of this, but… It was a period of great and rapid expansion in Organic Foods. Demand was outstripping supply. Even well established for profit outfits like Frontier were having huge problems from quick expansions. Northeast needed that new building – in the old one palettes of dry goods were practically hanging from the rafters, trucks were used for storage, etc. United Naturals (a regular business, not a co-operative) was merging several smaller natural food wholesalers (Stow Mills and others) into one company. The merger of their computer systems failed. Badly. Northeast didn’t just wholesale to Co-ops, but to regular natural food stores, citizen run buying clubs, and their bulk product was in regular supermarkets with “natural food” sections otherwise handled by United. When the supermarkets couldn’t get the rest of their product from United, they turned to Northeast.

            That building was needed, but there were what I think were unexpected costs from things like the insane environmental hearings about the impact of the building. Such hearings are necessary, but this one even allowed as an interested party the American representative of Britain’s National Trust complaining that the increased traffic would affect the Kipling Estate. Needless to say, that estate was not a real abutter. One has to wonder about such things.

            Northeast’s expansion continued and “phase two” of the building’s multi-years plan was rushed. It was also needed cold storage for rapidly expanding frozen foods and produce. In the meantime, United Naturals acquired Alberts, a large organic produce wholesaler. From what I have gathered, the Northeast debt load was not properly handled. Things might have been okay, but a couple of other things happened. The attacks of September 11th, 2001 affected sales in Northeast’s largest market – the New York City area. Cash flow was badly affected. There was a US recession in the wake of the attacks that affected sales. United Naturals, as should have been expected, solved its problems and fought back against Northeast and Blooming Prairie where it counted – deep discounts to its customers. The Co-ops, without the kind of funding available to a corporate business, couldn’t compete.

            Let’s not forget that in a few months time North Farm, Blooming Prairie, FORC, and Northeast all vanished. In 1982, there were 28 co-op wholesalers. By 2002, there were six. Part of that decline in numbers was from the mergers which created places like Northeast. After the sales to United, there were three wholesale co-ops left.

            I don’t want to spend my day writing out my personal view of what happened, which will be at odds with the accounts of many, but let’s just note that within a couple of months Blooming Prairie was sold to United and Northeast “merged” with United. Northeast’s merger/purchase of FORC was intended as the beginning of the merger of Northeast and Blooming Prairie. For the “merger” (read “sale”) to United, Northeast had to go private – and it incorporated in Ohio, far from Vermont. Close to FORC, close to Blooming Prairie. Were the “separate” deals really linked? The employees of Northeast were told that unless we changed to a corporation and merged with United we would go out of business sooner rather than later, that the small farmers and businesses which had been our backbone would never be paid and would be pushed out of business too unless the “merger” were approved, that there would be jobs for 90% of the staff, that pay cuts would not be involved; we were told all kinds of things. Most of what we were told was not true. Were they good intentions suddenly changed by the realities of the marketplace? Or were they outright lies? There were people who were working at Northeast who suddenly turned out to have cushy jobs at United. The General Manager of Northeast walked away with a payout of over $600,000. (He had already been a well paid executive, gotta keep that executive talent, you know.) (A couple of other executive salaries got payouts, too, by the way.) The rest of us didn’t even get our full memberships back. Within less than six months, coop wholesalers covering somewhere between a third to half of the United States were sold to United. I’m sorry, but there were a lot of lies and “coincidences” happening, more than I am capable of personally blaming on a needed new building. The arrogant man who mismanaged things managed them well enough to walk away with that huge payout. Draw your own conclusions.

          • I do mostly agree with you

            I do mostly agree with you and it’s not unusual for a CEO of a company being acquired to walk away with a “Golden Parachute” it does make me sick,especially knowing that he ran 2 other company’s into the ground before even getting to N.E. That only shows how little business knowledge the Board at N.E, had when they hired him. Most boards are rubber stamps. I served 6 years on a coop board in the area and finally left in disgust after being told to quit trying to micro manage the store. The nail that stands up gets hammered down…

          • that's Policy Governance for you

            Policy Governance is wrong in any board who wishes to claim democracy among the members, or shareholders or whatever they’re renamed now. Policy Governance means the board does not have a say in the running of the store and anything a board member may say of a concern would be deemed “micromanaging”. Everything is left to the discretion of the GM.

          • policy governance

            I am confused about this. What method do you think would be better operating principles for a board? In my experience, policy governance helps a board get very clear about their expectations and measures the CEO (the board’s only employee) against these expectations. Board decisions can still be vigorously debated and can come to a vote, and a board can delve deeply on any issue it so chooses. I don’t think it is good for any board to make day-to-day decisions for an organization, but it is certainly in the board’s purview to have a policy about anything that impacts its role of answering “what benefit, for whom, at what cost” which is part of the bedrock of policy governance. This type of board most certainly can impact the operation of the organization (or, in this case, store) by the policies it puts in place and monitors. The most effective boards I have seen or been a part of were policy governance boards.

          • How difficult can we make

            How difficult can we make things to be?

            It seems to me that the Brattleboro Co-Op grew too big and at the most difficult time. Food and goods are increasing far above the “cost-of-living” numbers. It would seem that as with every business that chooses to expand there comes a need to change management styles and methods of operation.
            I remember when the co-op was a small store offering mostly bulk sales. If my memory serves me correctly. Then it was far more community focused and depended heavily on volunteers for operation. This was when I went out of my way to purchase my goods from there. Now, I find myself going to Northampton’s Cooperative simply because I have lost my faith in making purchases at the Brattleboro Cooperative for two primary reasons. Firstly, I don’t feel like I am supporting my community when so many of the goods sold at the cooperative are shipped in from nonlocal sources. I rather get vegetables from walker’s, harrlow’s, dutton’s or one of the other local farm stands. The prices at these places are far more affordable and I know or can find out what is locally grown and what is not. Secondly, when I happened upon the Greenfield and Northampton cooperatives and found that the price of the same goods were at less then half of what I was being charged in Brattleboro it felt like I was being scammed.

            Understanding the cost of having goods shipped to Brattleboro can be higher. I don’t understand why I can buy the same items in Greenfield and Northampton at less the half of what I’d pay in Brattleboro. I go into the grocery stores of both Greenfield and Northampton and the prices are quite higher then the prices of goods in the grocery stores here in Brattleboro. I don’t get it. I can not afford to buy many things at the Brattleboro cooperative and because I can not afford this high end store I’ve been shopping at stores that I can afford too.

            In my world the Brattleboro Cooperative has priced me out of shopping there. It would be nice to one day be able to afford to shop there again, but i’m afraid I have to wait till I win a lottery to do so.

            This is how my world works.

          • Half the price,really?

            While I really like both N,Hampton and Greenfield coops,I have not seen much difference in price except on sale items and some cheese. Some prices are actually a bit higher. Just wondering what you found at half the price so maybe next time I can check em out? Also,Bratt. does use signage on the produce so you should know whats local or not. Most of the local items are coming from Westminster growers now,that’s pretty dammed local! There are no Brattleboro growers so next town up is pretty good…My plants are grown just outside Putney,even closer. If you want to support Vermont farmers that pay Vermont taxes and employ Vermont workers,you dont have to look far!

          • I first must say HowardP, it

            I first must say HowardP, it seems we are on a similar page in regards to the management factor of the Brattleboro cooperative.

            That said. One product example I will use. Jojoba oil cost $14.00 for four ounces at the Brattleboro cooperative ( the last time I was there over a year ago now) in Northampton’s cooperative I can purchase a more local made (Maine) Jojoba oil 8 ounces for $10.99 (1 month ago) and the product in Northampton is a higher quality oil then what was offered in Brattleboro’s cooperative.
            If I go to Northampton and buy only one this item adding the cost of fuel it is still far less expensive for me then buying the same amount in Brattleboro. Even when this product was on sale in Brattleboro it still cost more and was of lower quality.

            That is just one example. In regards to supporting local industry, I do as much as possible. The brattleboro cooperative has raised it’s prices beyond what I can afford. I hope this answers your question.

        • If all else fails

          My idea would be to sell out to Trader Joes, let them remodel the store at their own expense, negotiate certain employee guarantees and assurances and stipulate there must be a small Brattleboro bulk buying club permitted to operate within a 1/3 of the shared space ie, a local Coop in the every sense of the word, let TJs handle all the business headaches, yes there is always risk to this idea. Traders would also have to accommodate local (regional) producers to solidify the deal on a percentage basis. As far as I know they are not established in Vermont who has rejected their attempts to locate here. With this kind of corporate backing and a successsful business model in place, prices could be kept affordable for quality basic grocery items,not draining our will to shop there, maybe an option if all else fails.

  • reining it in a bit ...

    Spoon, this seems to be moving away from the original point. I certainly have a lot of respect for Alex’s smarts & business ability, & have been personally fond of him for many, many years. I don’t think that’s the issue here. The coop is a very different entity from what it once was, & I think most of us are aware that at least some degree of that change was necessary for its survival.

    But the original point, I think, was that the coop is starting to price itself out of its local market. Many of us, however committed we are to the place & to supporting the ready availability of fresh, local, healthy food, are being forced to spend more & more of our food budget elsewhere. Even those of us who have been willing to pay rather more than we can afford for years.

    Invoking a committment to “cooperative ideology” doesn’t speak to this problem. Nor am I convinced that it is really accurate. Almost 20 years ago, I was struck by an article by Alex in the newsletter; it was a response to the question, “how does the coop determine its mark-up?” This was obviously a request for numbers – the sort of numbers we were all given back when I first joined the coop. The mark-up on such & such is x %. Alex’s reply was that the mark-up was “fair & reasonable.” The phrase was repeated over & over, with no actual information attached. Alex is a very smart cookie; he knew what he had been asked, & knew he was not answering it. I don’t think he chose that route out of a committment to “cooperative ideology”. And I don’t think it’s an accident that shareholders are no longer known as “owner-members”.

    But, again, the current structure & idology of the coop was not really the point of the original post. I think it is a mistake for the coop to price out its long-term supporters. Maybe there is no choice, but hymning the old “ideology” doesn’t change the problem. Or address it at all, really.

    • Prices

      I just came back from the Co-op. I always go there on “Geezer Day”. I bought 2 big bunches of bananas without even looking at the price. That’s my breakfast for the week.
      Then I looked at the strawberries: Driscoll brand. They were $5.95 a pound. Way too much. Last week, I picked up Driscoll strawberries in Wal-mart for $1.98 a pound. I didn’t go there to buy food, I needed motor oil, but I couldn’t pass up strawberries at 2 bucks. I think I’ll go back there for some more berries.
      Then I went to the Deli. I’ve been in the habit of picking up a few small containers of things like wheatberry salad every week. The prices have been around $5.95 per pound. Today, there was nothing priced less than $7.95
      I guess I’ll do without my deli this week.

      Bottom line: I love the co-op. I’ve been a member for a long time – the Flat street days. There’s only 3 digits in my member number.
      But, I’m retired. Fixed income. When I feel I can’t afford something, I do without.
      I can reluctantly do without the co-op. The co-op can do without me.
      But can they do without the increasing number of Brattleburghers who feel they can no longer afford to shop there?
      I don’t think so. I hope they don’t either, and decide to do something about it.

      • "I just came back from the

        “I just came back from the Co-op. I always go there on “Geezer Day”. I bought 2 big bunches of bananas without even looking at the price. That’s my breakfast for the week.”

        I am a co-op cashier and I’m glad you go bananas on “Geezer Day”! I can’t afford the strawberries, either, but the grapes are pretty swell. Actually, my whole perception of food costs is skewed from working here. I know we’re a boutique to some extent, but I still do most of my shopping here, probably because I’ve become an expert on how much everything costs (an 18% discount certainly helps). I’ve been caught shopping at Hannaford, though. 🙂

      • And new competition is coming

        An international supermarket chain is tearing down the former Kipling Cinema and putting up a new 16,000-square-foot food store on the Putney Road site. (Aldi discount grocers, which is based in Germany and has more than 3,000 stores across Europe and Australia and more than 1,000 stores in 31 states in the United States. They presently have a store in Bennington)
        The family that owns Aldi, which is short for Albrecht Discount, also founded the Trader Joe’s chain of food markets.
        Aldi bills itself as a discount market that specializes in offering a reduced number of choices for each item, and highlighting its own brand.
        According to the company’s website, 95 percent of the products sold in the store are sold under exclusive Aldi brands.
        The company says it cuts costs by charging for shopping bags. (A common practice in Europe).
        Customers also have to pay a quarter to use a shopping cart, but the money is returned after the cart is brought back.
        The plans include about 10,000-square- feet of retail space, including meat, produce and frozen sections.

        • thanks...

          …for mentioning this. I knew of it, but was too timid to add that “ugly fact” to the mix.

          Again, it boils down to whether the Coop can compete, not whether it can convince enough people to “love” it. Or to put another way, more people will love it when they don’t have to think twice about their pocketbook when shopping there.

          It’s either that, or the Coop will have to satisfy itself as a boutique market…if it can survive.

          Samo, samo.

        • Good for basics

          If the other nearby Aldi markets are any example they don’t seem to carry a very wide variety of produce -even less than the Trader Joe’s markets. I think for basics: olive oil; canned organic tomatoes, etc. they will be a good place to shop -and certainly fun to browse occasionally to see what new /unusual items they have. But I don’t see myself doing my weekly shopping there.

          • Aldi's

            I checked out the Aldi’s down in Hadley last year. This really wont affect Bratt. coop at all. It really is after the Wal mart and P.C. type of shopper. Weird mix of Aldi’s private label stuff,eggs with no place of origin and milk from who knows where. There is no staff except for the cashiers and a floater. I found it very depressing. Well lit store though,that might attract the coop shoppers who gave up shopping in a dark store. Produce wasnt bad,although no organics and prices were decent. It is an odd assortment and it will be interesting to see how it fares here. I miss the movie theatre that was there….

          • hmmmm....

            I wonder why some people become a “Wal mart and P.C. type of shopper”? Now let me think….

          • Aldi

            Aldi is a strange kind of store. I happen to like some of their store brand and off-brand stuff, mainly the European-made stuff that is familiar to me from having shopped at Aldis in Europe. It can be like a walk down memory lane, reconnecting with flavors and concoctions associated with another place and another time.

            I doubt you’re going to find much “local” stuff there, or any natural/organic-type stuff. You will find fruit and produce, but it will be an unpredictable bunch of stuff – Watermelons and kale one week, turnips and strawberries the next. I think they get whatever they can get a deal on, then sell it cheap in their stores. So you probably won’t go there looking for something in particular.

            The way to shop Aldi is to go there before you shop at your regular grocery store. That way you can pick up a few things at a discount, and get the rest of the stuff you need at regular price. It certainly isn’t an alternative to the co-op.

    • It was long ago discerned

      It was long ago discerned that there are three major reasons that people join co-operatives. There are those ideologically inclined. That is, those that believe that we live better and perhaps only survive as a species by co-operating rather than competing. The second reason is the social atmosphere. There was a loud group laugh when, several years ago, in a discussion about the co-op, someone complained about how long it took to shop there. 45 minutes to buy three items. Five minutes to find them, four to check out and thirty-six to chat with all the friends and acquaintances you ran into. The third reason is prices. It’s not as true today, at our co-op, because of the new building. However if one buys in bulk, pre-orders, does member labor, takes advantage of sales etc. or, in other words, maximizes opportunity. It is still a good deal if one factors in quality, confidence in product, good health and nutrition, a knowledgeable and available staff, supporting local growers and suppliers and whatever else one finds appealing or sees as beneficial.

      The strongest supporters embrace all three reasons tho ideology is typically most important. Those people are still there, shopping today. To many of them a dollar spent at the co-op is also a dollar in support of co-operative rather than capitalist economics. It’s a dollar into the local economy. A dollar that helps glue a community together. It’s a dollar to save a business that is important not to lose. Most of the people for whom the social aspect is most important are still around, too. For many of those, even if they can’t articulate it well, it’s simply the difference in the total experience between shopping in the co-op versus a conventional supermarket chain store. If it’s a dwindling number I think it’s more apt to be caused by the increasing discomfort people feel in the physical presence of others with whom they wish to communicate. The last category, that with the greatest loss, is for those who shop only to save a buck. Those are the ones with the weakest attachment. The fair weather friends. If Wal-Mart has it a little cheaper they’ll go there.

      • Differences

        I think you’re confusing lack of money with miserliness. If you have the money but are too cheap to spend it, you’re a miser. If you don’t have it and therefore can’t spend it, you’re low income. These are not the same thing. It’s easy to look at someone from the outside and think — surely they have plenty and can afford whatever they want. But that’s not always true.

        Just thinking out loud.

      • The way I understand what you're saying is...

        …if you ran the world, then only your definition of business would be allowed to exist because anything else would be seen as uncooperative, and therefore against the aims of the society at large. (Note to self: avoid the Utopia of Spoon.) I regularly visit, for extended periods, another town. Much smaller than Brattleboro, yet similar in many ways in the spirit of liberalism that much of the Windham County tends to enjoy. Aside from a consistent cultural bent towards “hippyness”, (for lack of a better term) the town itself has a long history of being the center of intellectual and political activity that have resulted in sweeping societal changes elsewhere, not just nationally but around the world. These values came about in any number of ways from a healthy open-minded contingency of Quakers, humanists, even communists over the decades; a very strong Afro-American Baptist community; and quite liberal educational institutions, again whose seminal practises have been copied throughout our society at large. That is to say, the town is no slouch when it comes to ideas of community. So you might think it would have any number of cooperative institutions. I can’t think of one, unless you count the credit union. It does not have a coop, or a Coop, yet it could certainly, easily support one of even a modest size. It has a small grocery store, and in another part of town a health food store. Both stores have their share of customers. But there is no talk about the fact that both of these stores earn some sort of profit (read: income) for their respective sole owners. There is no large talk about whether either of these stores are in support of “cooperative” rather than “capitalistic” economics. People don’t trouble themselves with that nonsense not simply because they aren’t required to by the stores owners, but they see these stores simply as intrinsic needed parts of their community. (The grocery store goes out of its way to buy local produce when it can.) Of course it’s a smaller town than Brattleboro, as I say, but I don’t see size as a necessary factor on when or whether “capitalism” becomes an intrinsic evil as you suggest in one very glib sentence.

        I only mention this as a comparison because of your rather steadfast, if not blind, devotion to this idea of “cooperative”. I am not saying that the idea, or even any attempt to practise it, is wrong. I’m not that smart to know one way or the other. But I am saying that it is grandiose to tell consumers that they are shopping there first and foremost for a Cause. It’s almost as if a shopper-philosopher is your idea of the ultimate good person. But, however well-meaning or intentioned you might be with your ideas, to use such grandiosity in complete and utter ignorance of people who simply are unable to shop there for basic, survival reasons, is just appalling to me. One wise comment elsewhere suggested that “you can exercise your moral choice without ever setting foot in the co-op”, and he’s right. The Coop does not hold a monopoly on what is good for the community simply because it has a corner on the slogans. In light of how you frame the questions (and answer them) it seems almost sacriligeous to state the obvious: that there are people in the community that couldn’t give a hoot what has been discerned “long ago”. And there’s not a few people that would very much appreciate that the Coop cooperate with their ability to feed themselves and their family. What’s so wrong about *that* idea of cooperation?

        If, for whatever reason, the Coop stays on the course that it does, because of your or others blind acceptance of your isms rather than make some of the very real pragmatic, if not simple, changes that could be made, then it seems clear to me that the survival of this precious institution that you feel is unthinkable to lose, will certainly be in question.

    • cbridge, I agree strongly with you here

      I certainly have a lot of respect for Alex’s smarts & business ability, & have been personally fond of him for many, many years. I don’t think that’s the issue here. The coop is a very different entity from what it once was, & I think most of us are aware that at least some degree of that change was necessary for its survival.

      But the original point, I think, was that the coop is starting to price itself out of its local market. Many of us, however committed we are to the place & to supporting the ready availability of fresh, local, healthy food, are being forced to spend more & more of our food budget elsewhere. Even those of us who have been willing to pay rather more than we can afford for years…

      …I think it is a mistake for the coop to price out its long-term supporters. Maybe there is no choice, but hymning the old “ideology” doesn’t change the problem. Or address it at all, really.

      If the co-ops long-term supporters fall away, who will be left shopping there? In some towns, there are plenty of well-off people who can still afford to “shop green” at a higher price without blinking. This town is not that well-off, although a relatively small number of individuals are, but I don’t think they alone can float the co-op as a business.

      I echo that this is not at all a personal complaint about Alex or his capability as co-op manager. The co-op will continue to need a smart, experienced, committed management team to get through the current challenges that we’re talking about here, and I hope Alex will remain for the long haul. The co-op needs to evolve further, and that means more growing pains (not easy just after the growing pains that came with the recent building expansion). “Growing” pains might be a misnomer — the co-op doesn’t need to grow, it just needs to evolve and settle in and better serve the people who walk through its doors, or who would if they felt there was anything in there for them.

      Prices are rising everywhere, not just the co-op. The larger corporate stores can hide this for longer because they can spread the difference out over many stores. Smaller stores show it sooner. But the problem of having to feed a family (or just oneself) on a tight budget in this economy is very real for perhaps the majority of people in town already.

      My hope is that the co-op will base its buying/stocking practices ever more sensitively on supply-and-demand, not wishful thinking with new or innovative products that may or may not sell. Price point is key. I hope that co-op management will read this and absorb what is being said here (if you’re reading this, Alex and other co-op team members, you have my sympathy for the challenges ahead.)

      I, for one, will continue to buy what I can at the co-op because I believe strongly in what having a co-op means to the community.

  • correction

    I decided to do some checking and went to the General Manager, Alex. I felt like I wasn’t speaking authoritatively and sure enough….It turns out the higher prices aren’t due at all to higher margins (higher profits). The margins have been kept at exactly the same point as they were in the old store. The change has been in the cost of products from suppliers.
    On strawberries. Checked that too. Turns out the cheap Wal-Mart strawberries were not organic as are the co-ops. The grower was the same so that might explain the mistaken comparison.

  • Speaking of grapes and strawberries...

    I wonder if some of what needs to shift is a general perception by most people that all kinds of food should be available at a predictable price all year long.

    I can’t imagine buying out-of-state strawberries right now, or really buying any at all for another week or so. I’m waiting for the week when they are as inexpensive as possible because they’re coming out of the farmers’ ears. We’ll eat a lot of strawberries that week, freeze some, etc.

    On the other hand, I was able to buy two pineapples a few weeks ago when they were on sale for $3.99 each.

    And this week, organic grapes (from Mexico) are on sale for $3.99/lb. It’s a bit more than I like to pay for fruit, but we got some because it’s the only time of year I can even remotely afford them. I believe they were in the prohibitive range of 6.99 or 7.99/lb two weeks ago.

    I take it for granted that I have to be a price-savvy shopper at the co-op (and elsewhere). I am very grateful and lucky that I can still buy produce at 3.99/lb for my family for a treat sometimes. Most of the time, it’s whatever’s cheapest (yes, we eat “mostly apples” for fruit many weeks) but I can still aim for organic, and I realize that puts me in a privileged bracket.

    If people can’t afford the expensive exotic fruit, maybe that should be the first to go. Many years ago, people celebrated an orange at Christmas. It wasn’t an everyday thing. There is something special about that. I do think it’s great that we can get our Vit C. from citrus more than once a year, but for oranges, my kids look forward to the time of year when clementines go on sale.

    We’re enjoying our grapes, and we may even get some domestic non-organic grapes at Hannafords when they’re on sale there (as in the past they’ve been 99c or 1.99/lb on sale).

    I also couldn’t do it without my working member discount (8%). Though I wonder what happened to the 2% they shaved off — weren’t we supposed to get rebate checks or coupons or something instead? That lasted, what, all of one year?

    • Price and perceptions

      Amanda reiterates a good point which is that there are deals to be found. This still doesn’t make it possible for some to do all their shopping at the Co-op but it could be an enticement to do some of it there. The problem is, the Co-op has a reputation as a high-priced grocery store that is to some extent earned. That said I go to the Co-op because they have the best prices on some things, mostly bulk items but also sale items if you can catch them. In addition to taking another look at the demographic profile of their market, I.e. shoppers, I think it would also help to look at ways to get middle income shoppers in the door, focusing on price. If I never went there, I would not know that 7th Gen dish liquid is on sale for $1.99 a bottle, which it was when I went in there last week. In the end, it’s a matter of price and perception of price. I tend to think that both of them need to be addressed.

      • Finding the sales

        I look at the bi-weekly and monthly sales flyers on the coop website. If you can plan out part of your grocery money to buy bulk, you can get good deals and eat healthier. I agree you have to be sharp about what prices are elsewhere. With food prices continually rising it’s a job to make good food affordable on any level. But it really is worth it to jump on the sales in caselots and bulk buying. I just got a case of organic blueberry preserves for 14 dollars. Scope the sales flyers.

        • I miss the old way of sending out sales flyers through the mail

          Sales used to span one predictable month. Now it’s every two weeks, which means I’m never quite sure what date the new sales start or end on, and I find it harder to remember to check the website or pick up a copy at the store. When the sales flyer came in the mail, it became my grocery list.

          I asked about this and I believe the timespan is out of our co-op’s control, because it’s part of a larger group initiative. And I assume the flyer is no longer sent because of cost. But I found it very helpful and miss those days.

          I don’t get the newspaper — does the co-op advertise in the Reformer? I wonder if sales on staples/basics were advertised, people would come in who wouldn’t have otherwise.

          Just musing on these things.

  • Well said and thank you for

    Well said and thank you for saying this Lise.

    Smart rules of retail. Know your suppliers, know your customers, and know what sells at what price and when.

  • What is needed is an "old fashioned" buying co-op

    For those folks, including myself, who can’t afford to buy all of our groceries at the store forn Co-op, what is needed is an old fashioned buyers co-op.

    There has been an attempt to strat one in Brattleboro, and it is in some way associated with the Green Street School. I don’t know enough about it, but surely someone out there on iBrattleboro knows more than me.

    Meanwhile, this week I will be going to the co-op to make some purchases, because I believe in it and want to support it, but I will also be going to the Food Barn in Greenfield to get my organic veggies and fruit, as well as to the Farmer’s Market in Brattleboro on Saturday.

    • Rolf, I had heard some faint

      I had heard some faint rumblings awhile back about a buyers co-op starting up but have heard nothing since. Years ago in Boston when all my kids were little there were 7 families who started a buyers co-op- it worked really well for us for several years. It was definitely some work but I could see it being a good alternative to the higher prices at the co-op.

  • This just in...

    Today, organic bananas are cheaper at the Co-op @ 79 cents versus 99 cents at Hannaford.

  • Best Herb selection anywhere

    I must say that even with all my comments in regards to Our Brattleboro Cooperative I am in hopes it will survive through these growing pains. I do not like the new building’s height nor the loss of cozy warmth and welcoming feel with it’s recent changes.

    I do like the idea and ideals of Brattleboro’s Cooperative and will always enjoy the access of buying fresh herbs and coffee there. The opportunity to buy local breads and other local products is from my point of view a needed staple of our community.

    I hope that soon the Bratt. CoOp will fit into it’s new location and bring back the warmth once found in it’s smaller locations. This is something only time and desire can bring. Till then I shall try and support it as much as I can.

    Herbs, bread, wine, and coffee is mostly what we purchase here.

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