Members meeting at Niskayuna Co-op brings up new ideas

niskayuna co-opThe Niskayuna Co-Op located at 2227 Nott St. Photo by Marc Schultz.

By Indiana Nash

— In the midst of falling sales and tougher competition, member turn-out tripled at the Niskayuna Co-op bi-annual members meeting on Tuesday evening.

Annual sales were coming in above $10 million in 2011, prior to ShopRite opening on Nott Street East. The projected sales for 2016 come in around $8.75 million.

Many members came out because they’d heard of the falling sales from a recent Daily Gazette article.

Donna Evans, president of the board of directors, opened the meeting with a reassurance to the members and an acknowledgment of what the Co-op is up against.

Jennifer Felitte, the general manager of the Niskayuna Co-op, poses in the produce aisle on November 4.

Jennifer Felitte, the general manager of the Niskayuna Co-op, poses in the produce aisle on November 4.

“Everyone sells food these days … there are a lot more drivers and influences than ever before,” Evans said.

However, she followed that up by saying that the board of directors was dedicated to ensuring that the Co-op is run well and that it reflects the community.

Employees are nervous about the drop in annual sales.

“I’m a newbie,” said Toni Boughton, the wellness and mercantile manager.

Although she’s been at the Co-op for ten years, she’s one of the newest managers.

“This is the first wave I’ve ridden here,” Boughton said.

Fellow employees have been reassuring one another with stories of when other competitors have come and gone in the past, with the Co-op still intact.

“They have memories of when Grand Union came in and we had a bad year,” Boughton said. Grand Union was another grocery chain that was in the Schenectady area before it went out of business in the late 1990s.

Those memories are something that General Manager Jennifer Felitte is in a sense reliving, with a few other competitors in the mix as well.

When she joined the Co-op in 2014, ShopRite had just moved into Niskayuna in 2012.

Hannaford and Price Chopper are also within a 10-mile radius, giving the Co-op even more competition.

To delve into why the Co-op is losing sales, the Board of Directors launched a strategic planning initiative earlier in November.

While the entire initiative will take anywhere from six to nine months to complete, it will contain a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats), an environmental assessment and a revision of the mission statement.

“We’re at a crossroad, the data indicates that … it’s just one set of data but it’s important,” John Henley, one board member who is leading the strategic planning committee, said.

But he’s working on assembling a committee of Co-op members that are dedicated to looking into the competition, into what the Co-op is doing right and what it’s doing wrong and helping to reconfigure the mission statement of the Co-op so that it more closely reflects the community.

“The Co-op represents more than a place to buy food,” Henley said.

Jeff Schworm, who has only been a member of the Co-op for about a year, said that he used to shop there frequently when he worked at the GE Research Center.

“I live in Duanesburg now, but I go there whenever I can. I came out because I wanted to see about joining the Strategic Planning Committee,” Shworm said.

During his career at the Research Center, he worked on environmental research and strategic planning.

“So I have experience with it,” Schworm said.

This sort of involvement is exactly what Evans and Schworm are hoping for.

“We are rooted in tradition … we’ve been here for 73 years and I think that speaks to our ability to be rooted in our community,” Evans said.

To remain rooted in the community, the Co-op has been trying to better track its products and, therefore, better understand its community.

Gautam Parthasarathy, co-vice president of the board, further discussed the ways that the Co-op is trying to track sales with a point of sale system, which the Co-op purchased last year.

“We’re a very resource-constrained organization, so that’s where the POS system really comes in handy,” Parthasarathy.

In the first audit that the Co-op completed in several decades, Parthasarathy found that in terms of square footage, the Co-op is one of the most productive stores.

“The managers really make great use of the space that we have,” Parthasarthy said.

A few other members who came out to the meeting raised suggestions as to how to keep the Co-op in business for “another 73 years,” as one member said.

“Why do we only have to pay five dollars for life?” one member asked, adding “I’d be happy to pay more.”

Other members agreed and Evans said it would be something that the board would take into consideration.

Other members brought up the idea of adding more “to-go” food options, adding a cafe and a bakery filled with locally made options.

The board took note of them all as the suggestions and ideas poured in and while they may not come to fruition, the board came away with the sense of higher membership engagement.

“The whole idea is to include as many people to help form this definition of who we are now and who we should be in the future,” Henley said.

Reach Gazette reporter Indiana Nash at 417-9362, or @indijnash on Twitter.