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Co-operating with the customers

It’s well known that the Texas-based Whole Foods is building a 35,000-square-foot store on the east side of downtown Boise this year.

Meanwhile, the Colorado-based Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage is hiring staff for a store it’s setting up next month on Milwaukee Ave. in Boise. And the Spokane-based Rosauers Supermarkets, Inc. is hard at work on a store in Meridian that will include a Huckleberry’s Natural Market with offerings not unlike those of the Boise Co-op downtown.

Ben Kuzma, general manager of the 39-year-old Boise Co-op, doesn’t seem alarmed by all the competition rolling into town. In fact, he says he was surprised when he arrived from Tucson in June at how little competition there already was. He had at least 10 direct competitors to his co-op in Arizona.

But Kuzma is also busy gearing up for the day when his customers have more choices of places to shop for their handmade cookies, their pickled garlic, and their rare European sauerkraut.

He’s been working for several months already to learn about the market (and he’s astonished at how large the Boise Co-op’s wine sales are). He has also surveyed shoppers, learning that they want more space to maneuver their carts, and they’d like items to be better organized on the shelves. Kuzma has also been adding departmental managers, saying he’d like to restructure leadership to where it’s more in line with what he’s seen at other co-ops. He has extended the Co-op’s hours by 25 percent and he’s scouring the area for more parking.

And Kuzma has bravely invited a jury of his peers to spend some time inspecting the Boise Co-op later this month. As it happens, the National Cooperative Grocers’ Association is holding its quarterly meeting in Boise at the end of January anyway. While they’re here, the association’s members, most of them co-op managers themselves, will fan out in the Boise Co-op’s aisles, looking for ways the store can make itself more customer-friendly.

Kuzma moved to town with a few ideas of his own. He had Boise Co-op join the national organization so it can share news and ideas with fellow co-ops.

He’ll await board approval for a few of his other ideas. One is to install a self-serve deli so customers don’t have to wait at a counter to get their lunch. That feature has been a fixture for years in other co-ops.

Another is to set up sister co-ops in cities that don’t have them, such as Nampa and Meridian. Kuzma thinks there is room for other membership-based food co-ops in the Treasure Valley, and he’d like the Boise Co-op to be the one sending out the satellites.

I was a little worried about the Boise Co-op myself when I heard about Whole Foods. But Kuzma brought some perspective to it all.

“It’s a natural progression; every co-op does this,” he said. “They face their first competition and you just have to deal with it, and move on.”

I asked Kuzma if he’s likely to hear complaints from any Co-op regulars that he’s trying to make the homey, jumbled and individualistic Boise Co-op more like Whole Foods, a supermarket chain with more than 300 stores across the United States and the United Kingdom.

“We’re trying to make it look more like numerous successful co-ops across the country,” Kuzma said. “Each co-op has its own character, and whatever our customers want is pretty much what we’re trying to sell.”

Anne Wallace Allen is managing editor of Idaho Business Review.

About Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.