After its January launch, Spokane’s only full-service food co-op is revisiting its business strategy and trying to win new customers. Main Market Cooperative in downtown has slashed prices, started searching for a new general manager and expanded its deli selections, and it hopes to mount a marketing campaign to get the attention of shoppers.
Its interim general manager, Jeanette Hamilton, said there’s no chance the co-op, at 44 West Main, will close. She’s convinced the store will succeed. “But the most successful co-ops take time. It doesn’t happen in the first two years,” Hamilton said.
Previously the market’s assistant manager, Hamilton took over day-to-day management after the co-op board replaced the initial general manager Jennifer Hall.
Hamilton said the co-op’s launch was doubly tricky in relying heavily on a core group of staffers and managers to push it forward, many of whom didn’t have solid grounding in retail food sales.
Hamilton has worked with food co-ops in northern California and in Tonasket, Wash. Those efforts, while smaller in scale, started with local demand and grassroots commitment. That built-from-the-ground-up approach wasn’t evident with Main Market, she said.
“We could have developed more interest in the store,” she said. “It’s hard to be sure, but I think we could have used more time so the co-op evolved in a more organic fashion instead of being so thoroughly planned,” she said.
One of the main drivers behind the co-op has been Jim Sheehan, owner and organizer of the downtown Community Building. He helped convert the former Goodrich Tire shop into the food store.
Its goal is to develop a member-owned market to sell organic, natural and locally grown food. Anyone can buy items at the store, while members get discounts.
Another goal is providing information about nutrition and healthy choices by providing workshops and community outreach.
John Grollmus, chairman of the co-op board, said he and his board colleagues realized sales were falling well below projections after the initial excitement faded.
“Counter-intuitive as it sounds, we realized we needed to cut prices across the board,” he said.
Grollmus runs the Elk Public House in Spokane and several other restaurants.
Like any new business, the co-op is faced with cutting costs and driving up sales, he added.
While Hamilton is in charge temporarily, Grollmus said the board is prepared to make a national search for a new general manager. The needed skills are a background in food retail and budgeting experience – traits that the first GM didn’t have, he noted.
Customer focus has been turned up, with more questionnaires asking shoppers what they want, said Sheila Collins, another member of the board.
Members told the co-op they wanted custom-made sandwiches at the deli, instead of pre-made ones. The deli now takes those orders, Collins said.
Grollmus said the focus on education and outreach has been set aside for now to put more emphasis on boosting sales.
“We’re not sending off panic signals,” he said. “We’re trying to get things as right as we can as fast as we can.”
Both Collins and Grollmus feel half the battle is reshaping community awareness. Initial visitors came to the store and saw prices that struck them as too high, Grollmus said. The challenge is to get consumers to shed the idea the co-op is pricey and elitist.
“Part of the problem is changing people’s perceptions, so people working downtown realize the store is there and that they can come in before they go home,” he said.
The board has discussed hiring a local ad agency to develop a campaign to convince residents the building has adequate parking, affordable items and products they won’t find elsewhere, said Grollmus.
He added the agency has not yet developed a plan to submit to the board for approval.