I recently gave a talk to some retailers with a problem. For many years, these mom-and-pop shopkeepers have belonged to a cooperative. The co-op functions as their distributor: it supplies them with merchandise cheaply enough to make them competitive with chain stores, it controls brand names that consumers know, it advises them how to display their merchandise and plan special events, it represents them when new government regulations pose a threat.
So what’s the problem? The co-op hasn’t been doing terrifically of late, as competition in the retail market is changing. The shop owners want to keep it, because they value its services. But they also are the co-op’s shareholders, and they know that their personal wealth will take a hit if the co-op goes into decline. The question is what to do.
This is actually an old question. Retail co-ops have been around since the industrial revolution; Britain’s Co-operative Group dates its birth to 1844. In the United States, they began around World War I, when chain stores began taking a significant share of the grocery market. Chain grocers, back in those days, could underprice mom and pop largely because they could buy directly from manufacturers, obtaining volume discounts and avoiding payment of commissions to wholesalers. Some of them, such as A&P, a company I’ve written about, also developed powerful brands. Co-ops provided these same benefits to small stores. By banding together, small retailers could buy in quantity, and the co-ops could build brands just as chains did.
The co-op movement was highly successful in some areas of retailing, notably groceries, drugs, and hardware. IGA–the Independent Grocers Alliance–was a household name in the town where I grew up. I suspect that few of the people in New Jersey and Connecticut who buy their food at ShopRite realize that it really isn’t a chain, but a group of separately owned stores that all receive their goods from, and use the brands of, Wakefern Foods, which in turn is owned cooperatively by the store owners.
Co-ops thrived for decades, and they arguably helped mom-and-pop stores survive the chain store onslaught. But many of them have gone by the boards, largely for reasons beyond their control. Their retailer-members, largely small merchants, often lacked the cash to build big, modern stores like the chains owned. If a retailer-member failed to keep its store looking good, the co-op could usually do little about it. With the arrival of television advertising in the 1950s, consumers were persuaded that nationally advertised products were better than the goods in their local store. As a result, co-ops’ brands became associated with outdated, down-market stores and low-quality products.Some retailer-owned co-ops have managed to overcome these obstacles, but many have not.
Today, the incredible rate of change in retailing poses a daunting challenge for co-ops. Almost by definition, co-ops move slowly. Management cannot make major changes without the approval of a board comprised of retailer-members, many of whom may not see the need. Repositioning the brand requires convincing the members of the urgency of drastic change, a process that can take years.
So while I’d like to be optimistic about the future of retailer co-ops, that’s not easy. Co-ops have played an important role in retailing, and in helping independent retailers stay in business. There are a handful of exceptionally well-run operations, which I very much admire. But for the most part, the retailer co-ops’ day has passed. I think it’s better to recognize that, and to look for alternatives, rather than to wait for the good old days to come back.