You have no doubt heard a lot about the “essential workers,” which include your crew of Brattleboro Food Co-op staff, managers and workers alike, working hard to bring you food in a safer manner.
Since we began coping with this new series of requirements in keeping ourselves and you safer, we’ve struggled with redeploying staff to new roles in order to offer curbside ordering, and in changing the way we offer bulk products. Our kitchen and deli staff have all been learning how to be order takers, personal shoppers, curbside runners, herb and spice selectors, and flour baggers. They have, to a person, cheerfully accepted the roles that they have been assigned, and then often also flexed to change horses in midstream, as we would get a sudden surge of orders that might necessitate a shift in how many were doing what.
Some of our staff have been staying home. We were able to support a number of staff taking their work home and tele-commuting with some IT support. Graphics, bookkeepers, IT folks, and the HR assistant all relocated their work to their homes. Others chose to stay home due to a family member who was high-risk, or who were simply uncomfortable with being out of their homes.
Seventeen people have elected to stay home for health reasons. Twenty-nine have had their hours reduced, either because they can only do so much from home, or they have chosen to leave when the store is open to the public. So we are doing our current level of work with between 10 and 25% fewer workers available to us. Meanwhile, in recognition of the increased risk at which our staff is putting themselves, we have been paying an extra $2/hour differential for those who have been working in the store, a difficult economic plan in the short-term, yet seemingly the least we can do to acknowledge the exposure that our folks may face. We are so grateful to our heroes!
Our sales and profitability have obviously suffered, as curbside orders are less efficient, and we are only open to the public 35% of normal hours. The good news is that our average transaction has increased by 150%, as people are striving to not shop every day, either by curbside or in the store. That is a good thing, helping to improve our efficiency slightly.
I bring up the backstory of our store finances in the time of pandemic because I am aware that most shareholders are not conscious of the cost of the effort that has gone into this re-invention of our grocery model. We have applied for federal help to assist us in meeting the challenge of our increased labor costs during this time, and are monitoring our cash very closely. We have resisted the obvious solution of charging a fee for curbside service, since we really don’t want to disincentivize the use of the curbside model in maintaining our best options for social distancing, but that is not yet off the table.
For the last year, we had already been considering the prospect of reducing our discount structure to make our store more profitable, even as we lowered prices and increased promotions. And now, we have this highly unusual situation for which we have no cushion, since we dispensed over $750,000 in discounts last fiscal year, and are well on our way to a similar total this fiscal year.
So, now more than ever, we see the wisdom in modifying our discount structure. We propose to reduce our Elder and Working discounts three points, from 8% to 5%, beginning July 1. This means that you will be getting .05 back on the dollar instead of .08. For the Co-op as a whole, this reduces the amount paid out in discounts annually by an estimated $185,500. This is clearly a modest modification on both sides, for now. We will not change the 10% Food for All discount for those needing assistance. We will, however, also plan to “sunset” the Elder discount to zero in 2025, in five years. During that time, we plan to continue to increase our profitability slightly due to the new discount plan so that we may be able to give patronage dividends on purchases, which should help to offset the loss of the discount up front for elders, and also allow for other non-elder shareholders to receive a dividend on their purchases.
Taking something away is very difficult. And yet, we have seen, more clearly than ever recently, that the worth of this organization is so much greater than the prices paid. Still, we continue to improve our prices, broaden our selection, and provide the best service. Surely, that is worth three cents on the dollar.
I’ll see you on the curb,
By Sabine Rhyne, General Manager