Members ask PCC board about growth and change

Sound Consumer May 2020

The Puget Sound region has dramatically changed over the past decade, and PCC has changed in some ways with it. A classroom full of co-op members recently heard updates and shared questions at the latest in a series of meetings with members of the PCC board and leadership team.

Attendees at Green Lake Village drilled down into co-op logistics, such as whether deli offerings are different at various stores (each has the same core selection, though managers supplement different items depending on customer demand) and who pays for the inspections that certify our stores as organic (PCC does). They applauded some co-op specifics, including the spicy tofu, PCC’s “Cooking From Scratch” cookbook, and knowing that there are standards behind the products PCC stocks.

In the bigger picture, they had heartfelt questions about the co-op’s path.

The evening began with a behind-the-scenes tour, from the storage room where fresh produce is delivered and prepared daily—or sent back, if it doesn’t meet co-op standards—to the loading dock where staff members scan incoming shipments to make sure they meet required temperature controls and other safety standards.

“We truly are truck to shelf,” said Jennifer Beus, a store director for more than a decade and currently PCC’s vice president of operations.

Growth

Once CEO Cate Hardy opened the event for general questions, they came quickly and bluntly.

“You’ve got all these stores opening soon, and it makes me scared. Are we pushing too fast?” one member said. (After re-opening West Seattle’s PCC and opening a Ballard store last year, the co-op is planning Central District and Bellevue stores for 2020 and then stores downtown and in Madison Valley.)

Hardy said there was sound logic behind each planned location. “The pace is not ideal, but I feel confident about each store and the reasons for it,” she said. Seattle is the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan area, she noted, and even when she joined PCC five years ago, the region was adding more than 50 people per day—too many people for our current stores to accommodate, with many newcomers living in areas we didn’t yet serve.

Even so, moving forward requires care.

Newcomers may not yet be familiar with PCC’s mission or with the co-op model. And conventional grocers have tremendously increased their commitment to organic foods in recent years, said Sandy Voit, who first joined the co-op’s board in 1985.

“PCC can take credit for being part of a movement to change the way people think about food and eating habits,” he said—but national chains who followed have more buying power than we do.

It’s hard for co-ops to achieve economies of scale the way large corporations do, especially when we are committed to high standards and supporting local producers, working in a region with a steep cost of living. On the flip side, while PCC needs to be profitable to survive, it’s not under pressure to squeeze out profits for Wall Street shareholders, and can’t be gobbled up by a corporate parent.

“We are owned by you…” Hardy said. “We are not beholden to the marketplace.”

The interesting part of the situation, added board chair Catherine Walker, is “figuring out how to preserve the values of the co-op and yet allow some growth to occur.”

Their overall message was to let PCC know your thoughts.

“If you vote with your dollars (by shopping elsewhere) but don’t tell us what’s not working, that’s a problem,” Walker said.

Membership changes

PCC’s change to an annual dividend for member benefits instead of a monthly discount also drew feedback.

To one speaker, the change was a positive, and a “radical” form of co-op participation.

“Every time you shop, you say ‘I’m a member. I’m an owner,” she said.

Another said the change was a significant financial hit because he used to concentrate purchases on discount days.

Voit noted that PCC has had at least four types of member discounts over his years on the board. “All of them have run their course and changed…” he said, urging members to see how it plays out.

“Like everything else, it’s an experiment. Nothing is ever written in concrete…We’ll evaluate it like we evaluate all new programs.”

Questions also came up about how PCC tracks customer purchases. Until the change to the new dividend member benefit Jan. 1, Hardy said, we had almost no information about what members were buying versus other customers.

While we don’t know how we’ll use the new sales data, she said, it will be used to make the stores better—and absolutely will not be sold or seen by anyone outside PCC.

Walker noted that privacy is becoming even more of an issue as technology and artificial intelligence progresses, and that PCC needs to consider how much of it to allow or use.

“These are really important questions,” Walker said. “Because we’re a co-op we think about them differently and we will answer them differently.”

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