The board of directors of the Niskayuna Co-op sat down with a large and attentive audience at a membership meeting Tuesday, sharing some grim financial results and explaining their strategy to find a way to halt the falling sales that are at the root of the losses.
Nearly every seat in the board room at Town Hall was full for the semi-annual meeting, which came close on the heels of the resignation of the general manager and the decision to lay off six employees last week.
The annual audit for 2016 is nearly finalized, so the board shared the numbers in it, and some numbers for the first two months of 2017.
In 2016, the small community supermarket suffered a $118,000 loss on $8.8 million in sales. As of Feb. 28, sales are down 7 percent from 2016, and for all of 2017, only $8.2 million in sales is projected.
In 2011 — the year a new ShopRite opened a stone’s throw away — the co-op rang up $10.2 million in sales.
It is not a sustainable trajectory, all parties agreed, which is a worrisome prospect, because the o-op remains well-loved in Niskayuna even as it is not as well patronized.
Tuesday’s meeting contained congratulations for longtime employee Richard “Rit” Gabree, who will take over as general manager on April 8, and appreciation for the co-op’s staff and members, but the recurring theme was turning around that sinking trajectory.
The co-op’s employees, shoppers and administrators will all readily acknowledge that it is neither the biggest nor least expensive grocery shopping option in town. But it does have the greatest sense of community, they all believe, and that was at the heart of Tuesday’s discussion.
“The community has alway been at the center of what the co-op is,” board President Donna Evans said. “We’re going to be counting on that sense of community from all of you.”
She said there are three components to the board’s plan to reverse the co-op’s losses:
- An industry expert from the Cooperative Development Society will look at the Co-op and provide guidance.
- A strategic plan will be created to rebuild sales and community engagement.
- A call to action will be issued.
“This is where you come in,” Evans told the audience. “Being a member means you are an owner of the store.
“Spread the word. Share your story.”
To judge by their questions, some in the audience Tuesday evening were hoping to hear a three-point plan to turn everything around. But at this point, there is only a strategy to create such a plan.
There was no shortage of advice from the audience on turning things around:
- Advertise more. Advertise differently. Advertise targeted ZIP codes. Advertise via direct mail. Advertise through email blasts.
- Market what the co-op is (a boutique supermarket with a great neighborhood vibe) rather than what it isn’t (the place to get the lowest prices).
- Play up the prepared food offerings — they’re better than the competition’s and busy young people buy a lot of them.
- Bring back some of the old member benefits, which were mainly special low prices.
- Run a better member questionnaire and accept the results.
- Collect donations for the co-op through a coin jar at the register.
- Boost the membership fee, which is $5 per lifetime.
That last suggestion is already being examined, the board responded, but it’s not as simple as it sounds, because the $5 buys a share of ownership, not a membership.
These specific ideas and the larger picture will all be examined as the co-op tries to stop the sales slide, Evans said.
The Niskayuna Co-op was founded in 1943 to address a lack of shopping options in town. It is one of the few surviving cooperatives from that era, and now has about 7,000 active members. It added about 900 members in 2016.