Join the WSM Board of Directors in Conversation about WSM 2020 Goals (from weekly Board Updates in the WSM’s enewsletter, The Beet)
WSM’s Board of Directors initiated a four-part series of conversations about the four goals driving the co-op’s 2020 Vision. These conversations occurred in conjunction with the regularly scheduled Board meetings November 2013 through March 2013. The conversations built upon initial discussions with owners at the 2012 Annual Meeting, at unit meetings with all staff, and with poster conversations in the three stores.
√ Goal 1: Make healthy eating accessible, tasty, and fun
√ Goal 2: Drive the growth of local and sustainable foods
√ Goal 3: Invigorate downtowns
√ Goal 4: Use net zero energy, create zero waste, and promote responsible packaging
Goal 1 Highlights
At its November meeting WSM’s Board of Directors met with a dozen community experts and owners to discuss Goal 1 of the co-op’s 2020 vision: Making healthy eating accessible, tasty, and fun. This conversation was the first in a series of Goal Conversations about the four goals driving the vision.
The Goal 1 Conversation built upon more than 100 ideas from co-op owners and employees who participated in activities at the annual meeting, discussions at employee unit meetings, and poster conversations in the three stores. Drawing upon the philosophy of Co-opSourcing—bringing together the experiences, creativity, and resources of the community—the Board also invited community experts in health and nutrition to participate in the conversation about Goal 1. Present at the meeting were Alice Ammerman, Director, Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, and Daniella Uslan, Public Health Prevention Service Fellow at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Three themes emerged from the owner input, discussions with community experts, and looking at what other co-ops are doing:
• Improve healthy product offerings.
• Expand education.
• Reach more people.
The three themes closely align with what experts have identified as necessary for sustainable healthy eating habits:
In the Goal 1 Conversation, long-term multiyear plans were discussed as well as high-impact ideas that could be implemented in 2013. Some of the long-term plans that participants were most excited about included:
• allocating more space for selling fruits and vegetables
• featuring healthier food offerings
• educating employees on healthy eating
• creating a facility for classes
• making offerings more accessible to low-income shoppers
• reaching out to schools and other groups in the community
Of the ideas discussed for 2013 implementation, the ideas that generated the most discussion were the juice seltzer fountain and healthy food training for staff. The juice seltzer fountain was seen as a fun and valuable alternative to sugar-sweetened beverages, which Alice Ammerman observed has been linked to an increased likelihood of obesity. A worker owner present wholeheartedly offered his support for staff education: “Employees are our number one ambassador to reach our customer base. Educating staff and building a solid curriculum is critical.”
In addition to educating owners about healthy products, another worker owner advocated more education on how to shop at WSM, including being flexible in choices and buying what’s on sale. And another added that co-op advertisements should be expanded to reach more non-WSM shoppers by clearly demonstrating the affordability of products.
At the end of the discussion the Directors considered how the conversation might inform future planning of the Board and its outreach to the community. Three common threads emerged in comments from the Directors:
• the need to communicate how the Board was building upon what it heard from owners and experts
• the need for ongoing input and feedback from owners and community experts as plans begin to emerge
• the need for identifying and measuring desired outcomes.
Some highlights from the conversation include:
Board Director Audra Marotta pointed out the need “to connect the information according to how people are communicating these days and using information.” Social media and the website were identified as critical elements in communicating with owners.
General Manager Ruffin Slater pointed out the need for a faster cycle time in trying new ideas and also for a feedback loop that involved more and more people as the discussions progressed.
Director Linda Stier observed, “It’s easy to focus on activities.” She suggested that it was important for the Board to ask, “At the end of the day, who’s going to be impacted and how? How would we measure it?” She advocated the need for a clearly correlated, demonstrated result on people’s life.
Goal 2 Highlights
At the December pre-meeting WSM Directors met with owners and community experts to discuss Goal 2: Drive the growth of local and sustainable foods. The Goal 2 Conversation built upon more than 300 ideas from co-op owners and employees. Three themes emerged:
• Offer more local and sustainable products.
• Promote local.
• Develop new strategic opportunities.
These three themes closely align with the elements necessary to succeed in driving local sales. The General Manager presented a potential breakdown of local and regional produce as a goal for percentage of sales, with a move from 20% to 40% for local products, moving regional products to 20%, and doubling healthy food sales from 15% to 30%.
Components of making this increase include
• More space in store for these products
• Featuring products through displays, employee interactions, and samplings
• Selling organic at conventional prices
• Providing products with an unmatched taste
Supply and distribution systems are important factors too. Some possibilities for future work include freezing local produce, developing a following around products grown locally, and working on season extension. Opportunities for increasing local sales exist in several product areas:
• Increase local wine sales, which are currently 2% of sales, to align more closely with local beer sales, which represent about a third of sales. Promotions on local wines have doubled sales over the last six months.
• Expand local dairy products, which are currently about a third local as well, through opportunities like local yogurt and tempeh/tofu.
• Expand local meat sales, which currently accounts for 44% of total meat sales, with beef and pork driving these sales. Future opportunities include poultry, better utilization of the facility, and value-added meats.
• Continue to expand local deli and bakery products, which are already highly successful, with new product lines and increased local ingredients.
There was also a discussion of the local food system and what defines it. Roles include farmers, processors, distributors, retailers, and consumers, with WSM currently falling mainly in the retailer role.
Future questions include identifying partners for filling these roles and determining which roles may be appropriate for WSM to fill. Filling the “retailer” space seems to be the most obvious role for WSM, but there are some unmet needs in the processor/distributor “middle ground” which may make sense for WSM to take a role in.
John O’Sullivan, consumer owner and co-director of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, spoke about the need for forward thinking as WSM advances this goal. He identified several relevant challenges and opportunities:
• The growth of local co-ops in the region provides opportunities for synergy and purchasing power. For example, an opportunity exists in focusing on turkeys and guinea hens as alternatives to chicken.
• A certain coming challenge is the aging farmer population, especially amongst African American farmers.
• Season extension, crop rotation, organic systems changes, and other areas are currently evolving and provide new opportunities to explore.
• Changes that are coming among national distributors will impact what opportunities are locally.
• Signature products continue to drive consumer interest, and should be expanded.
Owners attending the meeting shared their perspectives and offered creative ideas for the Board and management to consider as they develop plans for Goal 2:
• Some products, even at a greater price, are worth highlighting because of their accompanying excitement level.
• Merchandising and the quality of displays are critical to driving sales.
• WSM needs to incubate businesses locally to fill voids in the local food system.
• Unmatched freshness may require a loss in money, but is worth focusing on.
• WSM could take a role in helping consumers preserve products themselves and sell accompanying products.
• A local producer tour, in the same vein as the popular Farm Tour, might be an opportunity for highlighting producers.
• The Food House could use more local ingredients, such as local butter, in the breads and pastries produced.
• WSM stores can serve as a living experiment for a greater role in education, educating consumers about not just what is local, but what is seasonably local.
• People are open to making different decisions about their purchases, but they need to be directed.
• Local is an overarching theme that connects all four 2020 goals.
• Creating a committee for helping work on these goals is an important volunteer opportunity.
At the end of the discussion the Board Directors considered how the conversation might inform future planning of the Board and its outreach to the community. Some highlights include:
• Creating a staff position that focuses on building new partnerships with local farmers and producers.
• Communicating regularly with local farmers and finding opportunities for cutting margins to make it more profitable for farmers to sell their products to us.
• Providing additional resources to local producers, such as marketing and outreach.
• Purchasing leftover produce from the farmer’s market for sale at WSM to prevent its waste.
• Publicizing our needs for local products and what our volume needs might be, and also sharing information to help incubate new businesses to meet holes in the product line.
• Publishing follow-up articles to promotions to talk about our successes.
• Defining WSM’s role in increasing people’s quality of life and the opportunities for doing so.
• Creating an offshoot business for distribution.
Goal 3 Highlights
At its February pre-meeting WSM’s Board of Directors met with owners and a local community expert to discuss Goal 3: Invigorate downtowns. This goal reflects the unique contribution WSM makes to invigorating the heart of our community. A “vibrant, sustainable commercial center” became part of WSM mission statement in 2000. The Goal 3 Conversation built upon more than 300 ideas from co-op owners and employees. Input for this goal also came from other sources, including WSM’s experience of last 10 years, what’s been learned from other co-ops and downtown groups, and what’s been studied and reported in works such as Walkable City–by Jeff Speck.
Three themes emerged:
• Increasing WSM vibrancy
• Expanding the mix of downtown services
• WSM stores in additional downtowns
For each of these areas, General Manager Ruffin Slater identified successes WSM has already achieved, the impact of those successes on local communities and the local economy, and steps for future strategies that will create the most impact. For example, the impact of the indoor cafes, outdoor gathering spaces, and events was described as playing an immense role in the vibrancy of downtown Carrboro. The impact of WSM’s newer stores was described as “substantial,” with 8,000 customers per week in Southern Village and Hillsborough (in addition to 16,000 in Carrboro each week).
In terms of future strategy, the first priority is to fine tune existing operations. This includes remodeling the Carrboro store this summer, improving the grounds of the Hillsborough and Southern Village stores, having more outdoor events, developing a mobile kitchen trailer, supporting complimentary food-related businesses, owning our own buildings, and developing a financial plan for minimizing risk and maximizing community investment.
Other Triangle downtowns have approached WSM about having a co-op grocery in their downtowns. The General Manager observed that WSM is building the capacity to respond to these requests and has a general goal of opening the same number of new locations as it did last decade. Rather than focusing on a particular location, WSM is working to establish criteria for new store locations in order to be able to evaluate opportunities that come up. The General Manager stressed that WSM only grows at the rate the community supports what we are doing and has many built in governors to growth including Board policies to avoid financial risk. The General Manager also stressed the importance of clear communications about considering new stores, and pointed out that some information such as real estate negotiations would necessarily remain confidential.
Meg McGurk, Executive Director of the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership (CHDP), spoke about what makes downtowns like Chapel Hill successful. She described CHDP as wanting a downtown where people “live, work, play, walk, bike, bus.” Diversity was one of the critical components she identified for achieving this vision: diversity of people, diversity of space, and diversity of retail. She suggested that Chapel Hill needed diversity of retail more than anything. Two aims CHDP hope to achieve are more downtown workers and more residency. Meg suggested that more families, more kids, and more green space are vital for vibrant downtowns. She also observed that WSM’s green space is considered a benchmark for developers.
Consumer owners and worker owners attending the meeting shared their perspectives on Goal 3 and offered suggestions for the Board and management to consider as they develop plans to move forward with Goal 3. Some concerns were also voiced. Five themes ran throughout the conversation:
• The importance of developing a set of site selection criteria to assess such factors as the potential of the location to become a vibrant downtown, the potential for a sales level that would make the store sustainable, and the willingness of the community to invest in the store.
• A desire to better understand how an increased economy of scale will further our mission and goals, including our goal of providing healthy food to more people and driving the growth of local farms and producers.
• The critical requirement of having all Food House processes and systems running optimally and positioned for the increased demand in production and delivery.
• The need for greater clarity on the ability of the co-op to expand to meet needs of other communities without taking away from places where we’re already meeting needs.
• The need for more information about costs for opening new stores, timing, and the source of the funding, as well as information about other alternatives that are being considered for invigorating downtowns.
Goal 4: Highlights
At the March pre-meeting WSM Directors met with owners and community experts to discuss Goal 4: Use net zero energy, create zero waste, and promote responsible packaging. Goal 4 reflects WSM’s commitment to environmental stewardship, which includes drastically reducing energy use, installing commercial solar energy, ensuring that all our packaging can be reused or recycled, and keeping our waste out of the landfills. The evening’s conversation focused on energy-efficient technologies and techniques as well as structural changes at the co-op’s facilities. Even more than with the other three goals, it was apparent that owner participation would be critical to achieving this goal on many levels.
Net Zero Energy
The discussion began with the goal of achieving net zero energy. General Manager Ruffin Slater reported that WSM has already initiated energy-saving initiatives and others are being planned for the immediate near term. Renovation of the Carrboro store later this summer offers the first opportunity for the co-op and owners to make a significant impact toward net-zero energy consumption.
The General Manager identified three primary areas in which grocery stores consume energy: refrigeration, heating and cooling, and lighting. The proposed renovations to the Carrboro store address all three areas of energy usage.
• To reduce energy usage from heating and cooling, the renovated store will have vestibules, fewer doors, and a ground-source heat pump.
• To reduce energy usage from refrigeration, the most energy efficient technology will be installed, and refrigerated products will be sold through refrigerated cases with doors. The store remodel will also eliminate all global warming refrigerants, a step that has already been undertaken at the Food House.
• To reduce lighting energy, the remodeled store will have LED lighting.
The discussion about net zero energy centered on educating owners and shoppers about the immediate and long-term impact the energy-saving technology will have. One suggestion was to use bold signage to clearly indicate what’s changing in the stores and why it matters. Another suggestion was to encourage owners to accept new behaviors—such as opening a refrigerator door to buy milk—by reminding them that they are actively participating in saving energy. In addition to educating owners, the General Manager noted that staff would need to be trained on using and maintaining new systems and technologies.
The General Manager also identified a number of initiatives in place or in the works for the second area of Goal 4, zero waste. Energy-saving technologies, such as hand dryers in the bathrooms, were identified, but the majority of initiatives involved motivating staff and owners to participate in reducing waste. Making it easy to recycle and compost were critical to achieving zero waste. Recycling teams at each of the stores and at the food house have undertaken this challenge. The coordinator of the food house recycling team reported that waste had been reduced considerably by labeling compost and recycling bins with easy-to-read signs with pictures as well as color coding signs to match the bins.
Other steps being taken at the food house include simple reminders like “These Come from Trees” stickers which have been placed on all paper towel dispensers. Wherever possible, reusable products have replaced paper products. For example, sugar dispensers and salt and pepper shakers have replaced packets of sugar, salt, and pepper. The General Manager reported that a group of public health students are analyzing the food thrown away at the stores and food house. The intent of the study is to understand the whole food stream to see how it can be repurposed.
The discussion again focused on how to involve owners in the process. Jon McDonald, worker owner director, observed that it only takes a couple of people taking the initiative to grow the momentum of change. He pointed out that the work of recycling team led the WSM bread bakers to discover that almost 100% of the bakery trash was compostable.
The General Manager described “responsible packaging” as looking at each product and asking how it can be sold in a responsible way. A number of initiatives are being explored: offering more bulk items, including bulk liquids; promoting bulk; providing bulk container systems; using paper trays for seafood; offering bulk salad greens in reusable containers; and encouraging farmers to reuse berry clamshells.
The co-op is investigating a reusable checkout bag program. An option being considered is a domestically produced, 100% recycled, 100% recyclable bag that would replace the plastic and paper bags currently used.
As with the other areas, education and participation of owners and producers are seen as critical to the success of the initiatives. It was suggested that owners would be more likely to participate if the co-op provided help setting up a home system for using bulk, repurposing packaging, recycling, and composting. A director suggested color coding products red, yellow, and green for environment friendly packaging.
In a closing observation about Goal 4, a worker owner suggested turning the stores into “living laboratories” in which children, their parents, and school programs made a game of achieving saving energy and reducing waste.
You can read more about the goals in the 2013 Annual Report. Send your comments and suggestions to