On the warm summer evening of July 18th of this year, tallies were taken, numbers were added, and two Owner referendums on Willy Street Co-op’s future were decided. With 77.23% of those Owners who voted, the Ownership approved a potential expansion project to take place within three years. With an even greater majority, 84.75% of the Owners turning out supported the use of funds up to $2,250,000 in order remodel and expand the Middleton store located at 6825 University Avenue.Since this referendum took place, Willy Street Co-op staff have partnered with other businesses and stakeholders to explore what such an expansion would look like. On November 28th, just a few days before this article reaches your hands, these efforts will have culminated in the ultimate decision on this project, as the Willy Street Co-op Board of Directors will have met to vote on final approval of this project and the contingent lease signing.
Changes at your Co-op
A possible expansion of the West retail is one of the many changes and transitions currently taking place within your grocery cooperative. As we make the march towards and into the new year, be prepared to to see your Co-op grow and change with you. As the world around us changes in every facet, including how we buy food and connect to our community, Willy Street Co-op is taking strides to keep up and better provide for its Owners. Through these changes, we are excited to not only offer a greater product selection, but better merchandising, an enhanced shopping experience, and the further achievement of our organization’s goals and ends.
Lessons Learned from Past Projects
The most notable and most visible alteration at our retail sites is the possible expansion and remodel of the Willy West. Having completed the remodel project at Willy East and the expansion to Willy North in just the past few years, the Willy Street Co-op staff tasked with overseeing the West expansion project have gained a wealth of experience in facing the challenges to staff and customers that ongoing construction and rearrangement of store layouts can create. By acknowledging lessons learned from previous projects, the West Expansion Project team will be better prepared than ever to work efficiently and effectively with construction partners and other other stakeholders in planning and implementing the planned transition. This experience will mean that changes to the store will come with as little disruption as possible to customers and staff, keeping the store atmosphere safe and comfortable, and also sticking closely to planned deadlines and budgets for the project.
Should the remodel project move forward, Willy West would see physical changes in layout throughout the store. Starting at the front of the store, the Customer Service desk would be moved to a greater distance from the entrance. This change would produce greater flow for traffic entering and exiting the store with less crowding and bumping into other customers. Restrooms would also move to the front of the store adding greater access and additional wash facilities. We are working with design team to widen our aisles, allowing customers to maneuver with ease without feeling cramped. The Deli and Cheese departments would change, with the addition of two new refrigerated cheese cases and new order counters for the Coffee and Juice Bar.
Community areas could also see some potential improvements with changes to the seating and a new Community Room with the possible inclusion of industrial kitchen facilities. Finally, the back of house will benefit from the expansion of product storage, allowing for better inventory control, greater backstock capacity, and more maneuverability for staff.
While all of these improvements could happen in the future at the Middleton store, at this time the project team continues to focus on the research phase of the project with the primary goal being to stay on budget while working to optimize the project both for customers and staff. Says West Store Director Lindsey Hardy on the project, “Our focus at West right now is to give the best customer service experience that we can while working through a time of transition.” If the Co-op Board moves to approve expenditures for the project and move forward on a new lease agreement at their most recent Board meeting, then customers could see changes at the store in the coming spring summer of the new year, possibly as early as March.
Additions at North
While the West store is under consideration for a remodel, the North retail store in Sherman Plaza has undergone several improvements of its own. Customers are invited to stop by Willy Street Co-op’s newest location on Madison’s North Side to check out a fresh exterior, complete with a new patio with outdoor seating and landscaping. Owners can also take a look at some great changes to the interior of the store as well. In the Produce section, a new cooler case has just been installed which will create better efficiency in energy use and a higher level of temperature consistency. This new case is also designed to more effectively merchandise produce and has an improved misting system. This means that customers can expect to enjoy higher quality and freshness as the produce will hold better for longer on our shelves.
When checking out, customers may notice the addition of digital screens displaying information about Co-op sales and events. These new digital signs are easier to read and easier to update with new information. Not only does this save resources in the form of physical signage, but according to North Store Director Jenny Skowronek, it brings more efficiency since “we no longer have to print signage and can provide updates in no time.”
Along with these new developments, the North store has even more to come. The Packaged Grocery section is undergoing a reset in response to customer purchases and requests, so Owners can enjoy a better selection of the products they want. Willy North’s Deli will also begin to offer made-to-order hot and cold sandwiches that can be eaten in our Commons area or on the run. In addition to this convenience, customers who have been waiting for freshly brewed coffee and other drinks will be excited to see construction of a new Juice Bar following the winter holidays.
New EndCaps and Beer and Wine offerings at East
In addition to the amenities mentioned above, we are excited to make a long-requested change to our product selection at Willy East. On October 31st, 2017, the Madison Common Council voted to approve our application for a Class A Beer & Liquor license. This marks the conclusion of a long application process necessary to return alcoholic beverages to the shelves at East after a decades-long absence. Shoppers can now enjoy the convenience of purchasing beer, wine and cider at all of our retail locations, instead of just Willy North and Willy West.
While this change at East might come as a surprise to some Owners, it was spurred on by Owner input. Store Manager Kristin Esselstrom notes that she has received numerous emails from Owners who are supportive of this expansion in our product selection. Consumers can now look forward to a small selection of beer, wine and cider popping up near our dairy and meat aisles at East. While our licensing has been completed, there is still much to do in order to fully and safely provide alcohol for sale. Staff will go through additional training and certification necessary to oversee beer and wine purchases. The initial selection of product will also remain unrefrigerated until a new cooler can be installed. Customers should keep a look out for these products as we move into the holiday season.
Store Clerk Model
In addition to product selection, our stores are seeing some notable changes in staffing structure. Starting back in late September of this year, all three stores adopted the new store clerk model which had previously only been incorporated at Willy North. This new model in staffing structure has promoted all entry level employees to the position of store clerk. In taking on this new role, staff will be trained in multiple departments and areas rather than only having expertise in one section of the store. By increasing the training every staff person receives, we will be better able to serve customers with a greater and more diverse product knowledge. What this change means for customers is that they may start to see their favorite cashier slicing cheese or stocking bananas, and eventually service departments will be more empowered to address customer questions or needs.
This transition is far from complete, as the gargantuan logistical task of centralizing all scheduling and training will take many months to complete. While this change will prove challenging and require some time to work out all the kinks, staff will be able to build new skills and increase their knowledge-base, participate within the store at a broader level, and potentially gain access to positions throughout the organization that were previously less attainable due to limits of experience. Another benefit is that with all staff members having the ability to take on various roles, we will see more flexibility and maneuverability in scheduling so it will be even less likely that a department will go understaffed due to emergencies or sickness. While mastering this model will present a great challenge to staff and managers, the benefits promise to be well worth it, not only in better serving customers but in creating a streamlined and efficient operation that will better reward our workers.
Progression to A livable wage
In creating the store clerk model for Willy North, one of the major goals was to provide a level of efficiency in staffing that would allow the the new store to open at a lower expense, placing a smaller burden on our budget as it slowly began to build sales. Expansion of the store clerk model to all sites was intended to create those same efficiencies without sacrificing our commitment to great customer service. In gaining these efficiencies, Co-op management can divert funds towards one of the organization’s primary goals, that of pursuing a livable wage for every employee.
In 2015, Willy Street Co-op transitioned from its previous living wage calculation formula to a new livable wage formula prescribed by National Cooperative Grocers. This new livable wage calculation prescribes a higher standard of living to be accessed through compensation, one that is inclusive of maintaining insurance and investing in savings, in addition to just meeting the day-to-day basics of purchasing food, clothing and shelter. The new calculation set the base livable wage at $13.62 per hour for a full-time employee, a significant jump from our then starting wage of $10.69. Our financials did not allow for an immediate shift up to this new pay rate; however, managers are committed to reaching the livable wage over the next few years. On January 9th, 2017 all staff saw their wages raised to above $11.50 per hour, the first step in a balancing act between providing for staff while remaining fiscally secure in an increasingly competitive sector. With the advent of the store clerk model, we saw our starting wage rise again to a base rate of $12.00 per hour at the end of September, closer to our goal.
In addition to operational efficiencies achieved through our investment in better trained and well compensated staff, Willy Street Co-op is pursuing a trimmer waistline along with a greater level of environmental sustainability by taking a hard look at energy consumption at each location. During the month of October, the store directors and facilities staff of the Co-op met with our contacts from Madison Gas and Electric in order to perform an energy assessment at each of our stores as well as the Production Kitchen. They did a walkthrough at each site in order to scrutinize areas of energy use including lighting, heating, ventilation, air conditioning systems, refrigeration, appliances such as our kitchen stoves, ovens and hood fans, and other equipment like our electric pallet jacks.
In observing areas in which improvements can be made and efficiencies gained, we hope toachieve several objectives. First, by optimizing our HVAC systems throughout the stores, we can provide a more comfortable shopping experience for customers and a better working environment for staff. Second, by identifying areas of energy use that can be either reduced, changed to a cheaper energy source, or delayed to off-peak hours (times of the day when the demand for energy is less and the cost of use is lower) we can create savings in our operational expenses, which could make their way into the pockets of Owners and staff. Finally, and most importantly, by reducing our energy footprint, we reduce our dependency on non-renewable and carbon-based fuels. The impetus to pursue this originated from strategic and business planning efforts by our Board and managers. Over the next few years, the Co-op will work to both establish benchmarks and and implement specific projects to improve environmental sustainability. The results of the energy assessments will prove essential to establishing benchmarks and may also point to projects to pursue that can augment our efficiencies and decrease our impact on the planet. These efforts are paramount to accomplishing our Ends of “nourishing and respecting the community and environment.”
Times of transition can be difficult, challenging and sometimes downright scary, but as we move forward into the future, the Co-op is both intrepid and enthusiastic about the changes to come. Behind the scenes, our operations continue to evolve, as staff gain access to more training and financial incentives as well as utilizing technology for more sophisticated and efficient means of communicating both with each other and the community. Owners will also begin to see a fresher face, as our aisles offer better product selections but also as new trends in our signage and other communications continue to emerge. As the world turns, your Co-op is excited to grow with you, both as a grocery store and a community.