Santa Monica Co-Opportunity: Growing Pains

Updated: Oct 22, 2018

There is no denying that Santa Monica Co-Op has always played a role in Malibu life. It's not very near to everyone, or convenient, but it has always been a great resource for organics, community and that feeling you get being part of something unique and meaningful. In this case like-minded shoppers in continuous support of a cool place that truly does provide what we need. Malibu residents make up a fair portion of co-op's member base. I mean really, we enjoy custom shops like SM Seafood, McCabe's guitars, Real Food Daily, etc... It's nice to go get a specific experience at a place that puts their all into it.

image from l.a. weekly
santa monica co-op facade

Modern Times

But in recent years the competition has really stepped up their presence in more locations with bigger and better offerings. Sprouts is no sprout anymore, with new locations and vast selection at good prices they are really drawing in a whole new generation of health-brand customers. Erewhon too has gone from one family-owned store to many, and they are the highest expression of selectivity when money is no object. I would say they are at the 'top of the Organic food chain'... haha. Meanwhile Whole Foods is now Amazon Whole, or whatever you want to call them, and they are going to exploit every option to keep customers happy before they shop elsewhere. Amazon is quite talented at doing just that.


huge grocery aisle

Legacy big box:

Even local grocers now provide big selections of beautiful, low-cost organic produce, along with all the same health-branded fare in the aisles. Quite simply, there are now only a handful of mega-corp owners at the top of the so-called 'healthy' product brands we were attracted to in the first place. That's just the way of business yet a marketing scam at the same time. "Healthy" is a packaging euphemism and mostly a lie. But that's a topic for another day...


So what was the Santa Monica Co-Op supposed to do during all this change ?

As it stands now, the co-op strategy of creating a new location, which happens to be in Culver City, has turned out to be more of a double challenge and less of a double opportunity. As management and departments pointed out at this year's annual meeting, the new location is not very visible, not very user friendly from the parking structure, and not very full of customers.


sales slump arrow chart

Sales are down:

While a mild slump during the year of transition was to be expected, one wonders can they survive it financially? Add to that the problem of losing (firing) their general manager invested with decades of experience and knowledge, ostensibly because, quote, "He was not able to manage two stores effectively."... and you have an audience both dubious and confused... (Clearly he shouldn't have been asked or forced to run two stores in the first place !) The Board feebly defended their odd and abrupt decision, yet finds themselves back in the dilemma of co-op survival - a dilemma that was solved years ago. But that too is a topic for another day...


The microcosm or the macrocosm ?

Many points of view came out from the member base in attendance at this meeting. One dominant theme was a call for greater member (owner) participation in decision-making processes. Members are called owners, but in name only. There was a clamorous call for more 'Co-Opy-ness' like in the good old days, collaborations, and a reiteration of the mission statement in action (Sound familiar Malibu ?)


The big picture out there is changing, city-wide and regionally. But the solution for a small entity like the co-op may just be to double down on its values, the details, its purpose, its reason for existence thus far... Why do we shop there? Why are we members anyway? etc... It is not about saving a few cents on a sale item, or saving 10% on member days, or even the commute... It's something else, and always has been.


Apparently the crowd felt this 'other thing' has been sacrificed in favor of putting all energy and resources into expansion (for the last 6 years and for no good reason in my opinion). And that the board is out of touch and out of reach. Though to their credit the board members did all express a renewed enthusiasm for inviting members to their meetings, and maybe having some open floor time. We shall see.

The take away...

The co-op always had "it", whatever it is, as a vibe, a tribe style popularity, a good feel and a great service... The member audience at this meeting felt that this is at stake, among other issues and details. Only time will tell. There are no guarantees running a business, even a member-owned model, especially when that 'owner' idea is its own euphemism as much as 'health food store', 'healthy', and 'all natural', Such idealities and slogans often become labels that fail us in the end.


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