Co-ops Were Made for Hard Times

Co-ops have never been big in central Canada, particularly in urban areas.

Sure,
there are credit unions and caisses populaires all over town, and sure,
Mountain Equipment Co-op is a popular place for people looking to buy
outdoor gear.

But MEC excepted, retail co-ops aren’t among the
big retail players in town, even though co-ops can offer shoppers a
number of advantages with regard to sourcing, pricing and ethical
behaviour.

Maybe, if the economy goes into a deeper funk, central
Canada’s city folk should take a cue from people in other parts of the
country and join or create retail co-ops.

Figures published last
year by the federal Co-operatives Secretariat show that in 2004 there
were some 5,700 non-financial co-ops in Canada, with 5.6 million
members, $27.5 billion in revenues and $17.5 billion in assets.

These
included producer co-ops, generally in the fishing and farming sectors,
and workers’ co-ops, which are employee-owned enterprises and which are
particularly popular in Quebec.

It’s in the consumer
co-operatives sector that you find most retailers. Consumer co-ops
range from small buying clubs to large supermarkets and wholesalers,
says the Co-operatives Secretariat.

"Revenues from the consumer
group amounted to $10.7 billion, with food products accounting for 39
per cent of the total and petroleum products, dry goods and home
hardware being the other main items."

Mountain Equipment Co-op is the biggest in Canada, boasting some 2.9 million members.

But
one of the biggest co-op retailers in North America is the Calgary
Co-op Association Ltd. with, according to its website, 425,350 members,
4,000 employees, $352 million in assets and annual sales approaching $1
billion. It sells groceries, pharmacy products, liquor, gas and even
travel services at 22 shopping centres, 22 in-store pharmacies, 26 gas
bars, seven travel offices and 17 liquor stores.

The Calgary Co-op is part of Federated Co-operatives Limited, with 1.3 million members in 500 communities west of Thunder Bay.

The
Calgary Co-op is big enough to anchor shopping centres in Calgary, said
Mark Goldblatt, co-op development manager with the Canadian
Co-operative Association.

But that kind of store has never been popular here, at least not in the cities.

The
Co-operatives Secretariat says that, although not as influential as
they are in Western and Atlantic Canada, Quebec and Ontario co-ops are
strong organizations.

"However, they have little penetration in large urban areas."

Maybe it’s just that we haven’t suffered enough. After all, retail co-ops grew out of hard economic times.

Mr.
Goldblatt said the first one in Canada was started by miners in Cape
Breton in the early 1900s, looking for an alternative to the high
prices of the company store.

The co-operative retailing system in the West was set up in 1928, where co-ops grew out of the farm sector.

But
Mr. Goldblatt said co-ops have never been a big part of life in
Ontario. He’s heard it said that Ontario farmers, with reliable
precipitation, good soil and easy access to urban areas to sell their
products, never struggled as much as western farmers and never felt as
strong a need to band together.

"Most
co-ops started out of some kind of exceptional need," he said, "and the
only way people could deal with it was by pulling together."

Of course there are co-ops in the city, it’s just that they aren’t big enough to anchor malls.

Eric
Julien of Ottawa got interested in co-ops when he was looking for
low-cost, natural and holistic pet food for his dog and two cats. He
found what he wanted at the Sandy Hill Pet Food Co-op, in operation
since 2004.

"They carry a lot of brands you don’t see in stores," he said.

But
he says that over the years he has become a convert to the co-op
concept. For one thing, he finds the pet food is cheaper. He’s
convinced that’s because, as a workers’ co-op, the Sandy Hill Co-op is
not focused on profit.

Mr. Julien is looking forward to shopping for his own groceries in the Sandy Hill People Food Co-op, which opened in October.

Because
they aren’t under pressure to make a profit, co-ops are better equipped
to survive an economic downturn, said Mr. Goldblatt.

He says that in each of the last five years, 250 new co-ops have been incorporated across Canada.

It will be interesting to see whether that number grows as the economy tightens.

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