University of Wisconsin - Center for Cooperatives
The 1995 Retail Operations Survey reports double digit sales gains for co-ops, with net income eroding slightly from 1994. The rate of sales increase fell below 11% after three consecutive years at 13%. That growth continues to outpace food retailers in general, but is less than half the reported growth rate in the natural foods segment. Only three-fourths (76%) of survey respondents were profitable.
Cooperative Grocer is pleased to present an updated set of performance measures for retail food cooperatives. Our survey covers many aspects of food retailing and also contains statistics and comments that are specific to co-ops. The survey population is predominately "natural foods" co-ops, but a significant minority do not define their market niche in this way. For comparison purposes, we refer primarily to prior Cooperative Grocer surveys and to the annual market survey published by the Natural Foods Merchandiser (NFM).
Ninety stores from the U.S. and Canada submitted information used in this year's survey, and a majority of them (57) participated last year also. In an attempt to keep year-to-year comparisons valid, we have changed the groupings to reflect growth in sales. The small store category now goes up to $900,000 (+13%), and the medium size stores go up to $2.2 million (+10%).
|SMALL: Annual Sales Under $900,000
With a medium sales / square foot/ week of $5.16, these stores account for 29% of all responses
|MEDIUM: Annual Sales From $900,000 to $2,200,000|
With a median sales / square foot / week of $10.47, these stores account for 34% of all responses
|LARGE: Annual Sales Over $2,200,000|
With a median sales / square foot / week of $14.08, these stores account for 37% of all responses
Co-ops surveyed report annual sales ranging from $122,000 to $21
million and net income ranging from a loss of $121,000 to a surplus
of $319,000. One store reports no paid staff, while the largest
employer provides jobs for 163. To make the survey report more
useful to readers from such varied stores and to home in on factors
which may characterize profitable operations, we have:
The median co-op Sales Trend is less than 8%, down
more than two points from the 1994 result of 10%. A few very strong
performers pull the mean up to almost 11%, also two points below
last years results. Sales declined in some stores and, if we allow
for 3% inflation, were flat or down in 21% of stores.
According to NFM, industry sales growth was nearly
23%. Of our survey respondents, only 37% exceeded the co-op mean
of 11%, and a mere 13% met or exceeded the growth rate for the
natural foods industry. Thus, while sales in co-ops continue to
expand, we claim an increasingly smaller share of a rapidly growing
The graph below shows this trend clearly. "Industry"
growth refers to NFM figures.
Another big shift in this survey is where growth happened. Historically, larger and mid-size stores have paced the co-op marketplace. In 1995 both these groups were below 10%, while the small stores jumped more than 14%. The double digits average increase for all co-ops is misleading in terms of total dollars, since stores doing the bulk of the volume had much lower growth rates.
Expectations for 1996 are more pessimistic. Nearly 20% of
co-ops anticipate growth below 3%. Just over one in four (28%)
expect growth to exceed 10%. Not a very strong portrait in a market
that is expanding at over 20%.
The portent is that co-ops are increasingly marginalized in
a market that they catalyzed. Co-op distributors must look beyond
retail co-ops for growth. Co-ops have less clout with manufacturers
and less prominence in the trade. For the first time in our memory,
NFM's market overview does not contain any comments
from a co-op retailer.
It seems to us that the difficulties co-ops face when carrying
out expansions and opening additional stores must be confronted
more forthrightly. In some fashion, such retail development must
be based in existing co-ops. Consolidation? Confederation? Warehouse
stores? It is time to practice greater cooperation among cooperatives
and regain momentum as leaders in the marketplace.
|Net Income Sources||All Sizes|
|Net operating income||-0.4%||0.8%||0.6%||0.4%|
|Plus: Other revenue||1.5%||0.7%||0.6%||0.9%|
|Less: Income taxes||-0.2%||-0.3%||-0.3%||-0.3%|
|Less: Patronage refund||-0.1%||-0.1%||-0.2%||-0.1%|
|Net operating income||1.2%||1.7%||1.3%||1.5%|
|Plus: Other revenue||1.4%||0.7%||0.6%||0.8%|
|Less: Income taxes||-0.3%||-0.4%||-0.4%||-0.4%|
|Less: Patronage refund||-0.1%||-0.1%||-0.2%||-0.2%|
Gross Margins: Inching UP again
Reviewing the INCOME STATEMENT, the Gross Margins for all stores in our survey climbed a quarter point to 31.7% of sales. That's a cumulative rise of 2.6% during five consecutive years of increases.
Gross margins in small and large stores are unchanged, while medium stores report a 1% rise. Profitable stores again exhibit an ability to achieve higher margins than the population as a whole.
(Below, under "Expenses," we discuss the differences between stores with service departments and those without.)
Co-op margins continue to trail the industry results reported in NFM, where the range for small to large stores is from 32.0% to 34.4%, compared with a range of 30.0% to 32.3% in co-ops.
Discounts: An expensive benefit
In the income statement, we are displaying all Discounts
as a reduction of gross margin in order to highlight that they
are a manageable expense. We recommend that co-ops make distinctions
among their types of discounts and report each accordingly:
|Discount Percent of Sales||All Sizes|
Compared to last year's results Discounts as a Percent of Sales are down. Large stores are down 0.1% while small stores report a drop of 1.4%. Medium stores climbed from 2.3% to 2.6%. The magnitude of the decline for small stores is more likely a result of differences in the survey population than in changes to operations.
The trend continues that discounts are higher in small stores, declining as store size increases. The quartile results show that a store can be profitable within a broad range of discount costs. Our advice is to make certain that you don't analyze this (or any) one factor in isolation. If your co-op has relatively high discount costs, you must make this up somewhere. It is also important to determine whether your co-op's discount policy is achieving its desired results.
(For more discounts, see the finance column in CG #63, March-April 1995, and the follow up exchange in #64, May-June 1995.)
Expenses: Rising much faster than sales
This year we are changing the format of the INCOME STATEMENT to make it more informative while retaining the simplicity. We are excluding Income Taxes and Patronage Refunds from the calculation of Total Expenses when arriving at Net Operating Income. From there we add Other Revenue and then deduct taxes and patronage refunds in order to determine Net Income/(Loss).
(These lines from the income statement are highlighted in the "Net Income" chart below.)
Co-op expenses take a big jump in 1995. Analysis is best done by size of store since results vary accordingly.
In large stores, Labor Expense rises 0.6% of sales, which offsets a savings of 0.3% in Administrative & Other. Profitable stores have a somewhat higher increase in labor without realizing a savings in administrative.
In mid-size stores, Labor Expense also leads the parade of increasing expenses. Climbing 1.0% overall, labor is up 1.4% in the profitable stores. Interest Expense is also higher in this category due to an increased investment in Fixed Assets.
Small stores vary from the pattern of other co-ops. From them labor is up very modestly. The big change is in Physical Plant, which claims an additional 0.8% of sales compared to 1994. This points up the critical importance for a small store to choose its location well and to utilize it fully. While this change may be a result of population changes, it appears that the higher physical plant, Marketing, and Depreciation expenses have paid off in sales and gross margins.
Compared to industry results reported in NFM, co-ops are allocating 2% more of each sales dollar to labor than does the industry as a whole. In contrast, co-ops spend half as much on advertising as NFM reports.
(For more on labor for co-ops as well as the larger industry, see "Wages, Salaries, and Benefits" below).
Service departments have a tremendous effect on a co-op's gross margin and on its labor expense. Given the amount of variation, we have included below a table comparing stores with service departments and those without. As expected, gross margins and labor expenses are higher in those co-ops with service departments.
Labor and Gross Margin
|with Service Dept.||18.9%||20.9%||20.2%|
|without Service Dept.||15.9%||19.5%||19.2%|
|with Service Dept.||34.0%||34.3%||32.8%|
|without Service Dept.||28.5%||31.7%||30.6%|
Profitability: Slipping further
Co-op Net Income margins fell from 1.2% of sales in 1994 to 0.9% of sales in 1995. While that is above the 0.7% reported in 1993, it's well below the industry norms. NFM reports averages that are triple the levels in co-ops. A deficit like that leaves co-ops well below the reinvestment capacity necessary to maintain market share.
Even if we narrow the co-op field to profitable stores, NFM's results are more than double those in co-ops. We should add our opinion that the NFM results for small stores are misleadingly strong because a large number of them are proprietorships where the pay to owners doesn't appear as an expense.
Balance Sheet: Picture of Possibilities
The big news on co-op BALANCE SHEETS is the reduced reliance on debt as a means of financing assets, For coops overall, Total Liabilities drop from 52% in 1995 to 44% in 1995. On the Asset side, there is no real change to report. The pattern holds true in all size categories, though it is most pronounced in small stores and less so in big ones.
We have argued for years that co-ops are overly averse to debt. Many co-ops have exceptionally strong equity positions. It behooves them to use this strength to obtain debt financing as part of a well conceived plan to expand and improve the co-ops services to members and the larger market. Failure to do so is more than a missed opportunity. It is an invitation to a private operator or chain to enter the co-op's market and wrest away significant trade.
We grant that it is a risk to embark on an ambitious plan of expansion, but at least that risk has exciting possible rewards that go with it,. It is equally risky to do nothing in a rapidly changing environment, and there are few compelling rewards to be found. Co-ops must find a way to be more entrepreneurial. Change in this direction is necessary if we are to thrive and to serve future generations of cooperators.
Ratios: Signs of strength and weakness
RATIOS are presented in the second part of the statistical composite below. Analyzing ratios is useful for examining interrelationships within financial statements and over time. Each ratio explores two aspects of a co-op's operation. No single ratio is all important, and the norms found among the co-ops aren't necessarily good and may not apply to the situation in your particular co-op.
We suggest that any ratio falling outside the quartiles in our report deserves your attention. You can supplement such survey information by tracking your ratio against the co-op's own record and by seeking competent professional advice.
When analyzing your store, look for ratios that are consistently weak or strong when measuring the same component; this will point out areas to build upon or to remedy. For example, Sales to Working Capital and the Current Ratio both measure working capital (Current Assets minus Current Debt). If both of these ratios are strong or weak, you might conclude the same about your store's working capital position.
Sales per Square Foot per Week, shown in a table below, measures how effectively retail space is being utilized. Since rents and occupancy costs are generally fixed and expensive, this is a critical measure. Location, merchandising, equipment, fixtures, and product mix are factors here. Many large and medium co-ops have a very strong ratio. Could they generate more sales, more efficiently in a larger space? Small co-ops are at the opposite end, far below desirable levels. The biggest key to their success will be the ability to generate additional sales from this underutilized resource.
|Sales Per Square Foot |
|CG 1995 median||$5.16||$10.47||$14.08|
|CG 1994 median||5.89||11.72||13.75|
|CG 1993 median||4.88||11.49||14.05|
|Sales Per Paid Labor Hour |
As a measure of labor productivity, we have inclined Sales per Paid Labor Hour in the statistical summary. It's useful because it eliminates the variable of pay rates and benefit levels when analyzing labor costs between stores. Scott discovered a flaw in the analytical methodology used last year. The 1995 results are much more accurate and reliable.
With co-op labor costs escalating faster than sales, we must begin seeing productivity gains to justify the increasing costs. This ratio is managed by controlling the number of hours worked in the store.
Ratios help measure how productively the co-op utilizes its assets, and whether the mix of them is correct. Sales to Total Assets gives the overall picture. This ratio dropped in all size categories from what were already anemic levels. Sales to Net Fixed Assets measures use of equipment and fixtures. Historically co-ops have been far too high here, so it is gratifying to see declines across the survey population. There's still a long way to go, however, and many of the smaller co-ops remain woefully under equipped. Sales to Working Capital rises a little bit from last year: right direction, too small of a move. Put it together, and it appears that co-ops have far more Current Assets than their sales warrant. Since more sales are available in the market, the logical strategy would be to invest excess liquidity into Fixed Assets in order to support greater sales.
Inventory is the lifeblood of a retail operation. Inventory Turns measures how well it circulates. Small stores report modest gains, medium stores a modest decline, while large store are flat. Our small and mid-size stores lag well behind the NFM results, while the larger stores compare quite well. We are also reporting Inventory per Square Foot, which you will find useful in analyzing the appropriate inventory levels and mix for existing, new, or expanded stores.
|Inventory Turns Per Year |
|CG 1995 average||8.5||11.6||15.1|
|NFM 1995 average||13.0||13.0||13.6|
|CG 1994 median||8.0||12.5||15.1|
|Inventory Per Square Foot |
|CG 1995 median||22.40||34.64||30.25|
|CG 1994 median||21.87||36.74||31.57|
|CG 1993 median||22.09||33.35||26.99|
Liquidity refers to a business's ability to cover its short term obligations and to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves. It is commonly measured by the Current Ratio (current assets / current liabilities). Generally speaking, co-ops have far too high a level of Current Assets, which results in quite high Current Ratios. The large stores drop nicely to a 1.67 median, while the small and medium stores continue their trend of increasing.
As noted in the above balance sheet narrative, Debt declined a lot compared to 1994. Therefore, the Debt to Equity Ratio is strengthened even more. Given low sales productivity ratios and the declining co-op market share, we once again encourage prudent borrowing by co-ops. It is a way to use the strength of our equity position to best effect.
|Return on Equity, |
Return on Assets*
|*(profitable stores, medians)
|Return on Equity||10.4%||13.9%||11.3%||11.7%|
|Return on Assets||8.0%||7.3%||6.3%||6.8%|
Return rations - such as Return on Equity and Return on Assets - are used to analyze performance relative to risk. If one could invest in a CD or Treasury Bill at zero risk and obtain 5% interest, then what marginal increase in return will be realized when risk (operating a retail co-op) is undertaken? Co-ops are very weak performers here. Again, their equity and assets could be used more effectively to leverage debt capital for purposes of expanding sales and services.
Wages, Salaries, and Benefits
Once again small stores report the largest increase in managerial salaries, up 10% over last year. Medium stores are up 7%, and the larger stores are keeping their people even with inflation. Our managers are better paid in medium and large stores than NFM reports, bat are way below in small stores.
Hourly workers saw little change in wage rates. It is interesting that in co-ops the rates of pay increase as stores grow in size, while in the NFM report they decline
|Manager Salary and Staff Wages ||ALL|
|Manager Salary (mean)||$20,277||$29,531||$41,626||$31,585|
|Change from 1994||10%||7%||4%||1%|
|Entry Wage (median)||5.00||5.50||5.75||5.50|
|Change from 1994||0%||-8%||3%||-2%|
|Wage after 1 yr. (median)||6.00||6.50||6.85||6.50|
|Change from 1994||0%||-7%||5%||0%|
|Natural Foods Merchandiser:||small||med.-lg.||supermkt.|
|Average Wage (FT)||6.76||5.93||5.83|
Co-op employee benefit structures are often very attractive; see the table below. Given the greater number of small stores in this year's survey, a year-to-year comparison is more valid by size category than it is overall.
|Employee Benefits |
(percent of stores offering)
|Other paid days||13||17||15||15|
Medium mission measures
The fundamental co-op mission is to serve the member-owners. Several measures of member involvement relate to this mission and indicate much room for improvement.
Exclusive reliance on member sales is uncommon; nearly all retail co-ops surveyed sell to the general public, enabling them to survive and grow in a competitive market. But are stores with a low percent of sales to members realizing the potential of their co-op structure? Are they achieving net operating income on those member sales? The percent of sales to members, shown below, changed little this year. Among small and large stores, the median is less than two-thirds of all sales; among medium stores it is less than half.
|Percent of Sales to Members ||ALL|
Annual sales per member is another measure of a co-op's member service level. Co-ops continue to provide only a fraction of their members' grocery needs, often a small fraction. Nationally, consumers now spend nearly as much on food eaten out as food at home.
|Annual Sales per Member ||ALL|
Nevertheless, per capita purchases for food consumed at home continue at around $1500 annually. A majority of large co-op stores sell more than half that amount per member each year. But in most small co-ops and in more than one-fourth of all stores, member purchases average less than $10 per week. For many co-ops, capturing greater market share can begin with existing members and the dollars they are spending elsewhere.
Besides member's patronage, cooperatives must rely on their member-owners for invested capital -- though this need for capital is often under recognized. Most co-ops have a maximum or lifetime member investment, while a few require an annual fee. Annual fees among survey co-ops range from $4 to $24, while the lifetime fees range from $5 to $90. Member fees, unfortunately, often obscure the need for invested capital and disguise a weak bottom line through the addition of "Other Revenue" obtained from fees. Unlike invested capital, fees have the further disadvantage of being taxable income. Lifetime member investments range from as low as $60 to as high as $500; the table below shows the quartiles. The trend is slowly upward.
|Lifetime Member Investment ||ALL|
Board of Directors: Volunteer leaders
We hope our survey helps readers understand the business their co-op is in. Although it is focused on operations, we also asked a few questions about the board of directors.
Two-thirds of surveyed co-ops are consumer cooperatives; some 27% are incorporated as non-profits, often because of unfavorable or nonexistent state statutes for consumer co-ops. The remaining 6% are divided between worker co-ops and "other".
The board of directors is elected only by members at meetings in 46% of the co-ops, while 54% also allow a mail ballot in board elections. Boards range in size from 4 to 17, with the most common size being 9 directors. They serve terms of three years in 37% of the co-ops, and this practice has been growing in recent years. Terms are 2 years in 57% of the co-ops, and 1 year in only 6%.
Having employees on the board of directors, a novel practice in most businesses, is common among our cooperatives. Two-thirds of them allow this practice. Among co-ops with such employee directors, in 59% election is by the members; in 36% election of by the employees; and in 5% en employee director is appointed by the elected board.
In 83% of co-ops, the full board meets 10-14 times per year; the remaining 17% are roughly split between fewer and more meetings. We wonder about boards that are meeting 15 or more times annually: are they micro-managing, or are they focused in the co-op's future?
|Percent of all responses||29%||21%||34%||26%||37%||29%||100%||76%|
|Number of Responses||26||19||31||23||33||26||90||68|
|Gross Margin After Discounts||27.4%||28.3%||30.0%||30.6%||30.7%||31.4%||29.5%||30.3%|
|Wages and Salaries||14.3%||14.1%||16.5%||16.3%||15.9%||16.0%||15.6%||15.6%|
|Total Labor Expense||16.7%||16.7%||20.0%||20.0%||20.0%||20.2%||19.0%||19.1%|
|Administrative and Other||2.7%||2.7%||2.4%||2.5%||3.2%||3.5%||2.8%||2.9%|
|Net Operating Income / (Loss)||-0.4%||1.2%||0.8%||1.7%||0.6%||1.3%||0.4%||1.5%|
|plus Other Revenue||1.5%||1.4%||0.7%||0.7%||0.6%||0.6%||0.9%||0.8%|
|less Income Taxes||-0.2%||-0.3%||-0.3%||-0.4%||-0.3%||-0.4%||-0.3%||-0.4%|
|less Patronage Refund||-0.1%||-0.1%||-0.1%||-0.1%||-0.2%||-0.2%||-0.1%||-0.2%|
|Net Income (Loss)||0.8%||2.2%||1.1%||1.9%||0.7%||1.3%||0.9%||1.7%|
|Total Current Assets||60%||59%||54%||57%||45%||48%||52%||54%|
|Net Fixed Assets||29%||30%||36%||34%||48%||45%||38%||37%|
|Net Long-term Debt||23%||16%||22%||21%||24%||20%||23%||19%|
|Member Share Capital||32%||33%||32%||31%||29%||31%||31%||32%|
|Total Liabilities and Equity||100%||100%||100%||100%||100%||100%||100%||100%|