Spring into Local Celebrations

By: John Tashiro, General Manager

It seems like the warmer weather has finally arrived, especially as I notice the increased frequency of geese flying overhead as they make their arrival back to Vermont. Spring is certainly an exciting time at the Co-op with our focus on local as we anticipate the return of our locally grown produce! I can hardly wait to see and taste everything from broccoli, spinach, asparagus and radishes to peas, potatoes, strawberries, cabbage and so many others!   

April always has a special place in my heart with Earth Day celebrations on April 22nd. Here at the Co-op, we’ll celebrate Earth Week by offering free reusable bags, starting Monday, April 16th while supplies last. Many, many thanks to our Earth Week sponsors: Seventh Generation, Cabot, Albert’s, and Frontier Co-op.

As you make your spring plans, please save Saturday, May 12th for our South End store’s grand opening celebration. We’re partnering with Citizen Cider and Switchback Brewing Company to bring you a Flynn Avenue Block Party! The celebration will include food sampling, music, kids’ activities and much more, so stay tuned.

We have now raised over $600,000 with our Member Loan Campaign and we’re on track to reach our goal of $1.5 million! With pledges and loans still coming in and our new partnership with Milk Money, the Board authorized an extension of the Campaign through August 27th. The Loan Campaign remains a very tangible way to directly invest in the growth of the Co-op and earn a fair rate of return with a business you already own and believe in. We would be grateful for your consideration and your investment in the Co-op’s future.

Our South End store has now been open for over four months and we appreciate all your incredible support. We have received so many comments along with some reoccurring questions that I wanted to take this opportunity to address some of them below:

How is the South End store’s sales performance and Membership growth?

I have heard Members raise concerns with the South End store’s sales, with most noting that it feels a lot less busy than the Downtown store. We anticipated the general shopping patterns at the South End store would be different from Downtown, and that has indeed turned out to be the case. However, I am thrilled to share that sales at the South End store continue to exceed our expectations. Together with the Downtown store, the entire Co-op is on track to meet and likely exceed our overall annual sales goals!

Our Membership has also increased substantially with over 1,200 new Members since our South End store opened in mid-November. Approximately 70% of our new Members signed up at the South End store. Year to date, we have already doubled the number of new Members from the previous year!  

What has been surprising or unexpected with the South End store expansion?

We knew hiring for 100 positions for the South End store was an ambitious goal. However, the combination of Vermont’s record setting low unemployment levels and our standards for customer-service oriented employees that fit our culture created a very challenging situation. When we opened the store, our positions were only 60% filled and it took us until February to get to over 80%, which is manageable.

Another surprise was the very quick pace of sales migration from the Downtown store to the South End store. While we anticipated sales migration of approximately 20%, we expected this would take place over several months rather than almost instantly. Interestingly, we have seen some Members show a clear preference for one location over another, while others divide their time between the two locations.

What were the reasons behind the South End store’s larger parking lot and retail space?

City Market was one of the largest single store co-ops in the country in terms of sales (until we opened a second store). The traffic (cars, bikes, pedestrians) and general safety in our Downtown store’s parking lot has long been a key concern. In addition, as sales continued to grow at the Downtown store, both staff and customers faced challenges navigating the limited retail space. We heard from many Members, customers and staff members on both of these issues; we listened and really took the comments to heart. In planning for the South End store, we decided to maximize parking (based on what the City allows) and created 115 parking spaces (vs 70 spaces at the Downtown store). In addition, we increased the retail floor space by 30% to 15,500 square feet (vs 12,000 at the Downtown store). We felt these plans would allow the Co-op to provide both a great shopping experience and a comfortable working environment for many years, with the anticipation of continued sales growth.

Why did you gate off the Briggs Street entrance to the parking lot at the South End store?

Our initial plans called for the main customer entrance to the parking lot to be located off of Briggs Street. During construction planning, we had many conversations with area neighbors and with the City’s Department of Public Works about traffic. Legitimate concerns were raised about City Market customers potentially using side streets off of Briggs Street to more quickly connect to Route 7.

The long term solution to this concern will occur when the City’s Champlain Parkway project is complete. Most of the side streets off of Briggs Street will be dead-ended and Briggs Street will be paved, as part of this project. In the meantime, the City required that the Co-op gate the entrance at Briggs Street (with the local fire department also having a key). We then took time to rework the Flynn Avenue entrance to make it safer for both customer and truck traffic. We will continue to make parking lot improvements, including adding speed limit/slow signs, striping stop signs and adding other safety features.

For more information, please see the video we created in August 2016 to explain this change.

What are you focusing on now that you’ve opened the South End store?

We continue to be busy looking at everything from optimizing the operations between our two stores to bringing more of the Co-op feel to the South End to strategic planning for the next few years and creating next year’s budget. We are focused on fully training our new staff members so we can continue to offer a welcoming customer experience as well as retain our unique Co-op culture.

Based a number of customer and Member requests, we’re also focused on adjusting our South End store’s product selection, especially within our Bulk Department. We will be creating some additional space in this department to accommodate some of these requests and will continue to review our product offerings more broadly. We also have some other projects in the works: additional parking lot signage; a large mural near the registers by Tara Goreau; a green wall for climbing plants, some signage, and benches for the Children’s Discovery Area; and two Member Art walls in the cafe. Stay tuned!

What are the Co-op’s future expansion plans?

It will take some time for us to settle into our two store operations, but we constantly think about our collective future and how we can best deliver on our Global Ends and serve our Members, customers and the broader community. Any future expansion, whether in Burlington or beyond, would include appropriate research including market studies, financial review, and understanding community needs.

Future expansion projects may indeed take on different forms and services other than building, purchasing or leasing new locations. We plan to remain financially viable and sustainable and to continue to support the community as a whole while we continue to consider how best to meet the needs of those that have less access to healthy, affordable food options.

As always, thank you for your amazing support as we look to serve you, our Members, customers and the broader community across our two stores. We look forward to seeing you at the Co-op and we wish you our very best!