Feedback: Can a 3-Store Co-op Still Be a Community?

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Weavers Way has been holding a series of member-information meetings about plans for a third store in Ambler, PA. By the time this is published, the exact location of the store likely will have been chosen, and management will have begun to round up over $3 million necessary for preparing the space for the store — purchasing a building is not on the current agenda.

Aside from the existence of an enthusiastic core of nearly 400 supporters in the Ambler area, professional market studies indicate high chances of success for a store that would do over $8 million a year in sales after the “running-in” period and would probably employ about 45 people. For comparison, Chestnut Hill had about $11 million in sales last year.

The major arguments for engaging in this enterprise seem to be economic: 1) The three stores should be able to deal better with suppliers because of ordering more product. 2) There are economies of scale in administration — the third store would not require anything like a one-third increase in administrative staff.

I personally remember the run-up to the planned expansion into 610 Carpenter Lane in the late 1990s that was terminated because of our financial crisis. Everything seemed just guesswork back then — the architecture, the projected sales, the shape of the stores. Listening to General Manager Jon Roesser this time around, I was really impressed at the professionalism of the planning.

Like all predictions, the ones about volume of sales, improved purchasing power and small administrative increase contain a lot of hope. People who open stores are always gambling that things will work out. Till now, Weavers Way has a pretty good track record.

Even if we assume that the economics will work out, I still worry about the social implications of this expansion. Weavers Way has become a stalwart of the community in Mt. Airy, and it has become important in Chestnut Hill. Still, there was a lot of change when we abolished the work requirement in order to make the Chestnut Hill store work. Shoppers are no longer naturally allied in some way by common membership in a community institution. Our extra programming weakened, and then became strong again, but even now it is mainly organized by staff rather than by Co-op members. The Environment Committee has continued to be home to enthusiastic volunteers, but with store growth many of the other committees — including the Education Committee, which I chair — have a much lower profile.

So where does Ambler fit in? Despite a number of naysayers, Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill seem to me to be continuous neighborhoods, but Ambler really is in a different world. When I asked Jon about the best route to get there, he noted that there is even disagreement on the way to go. You can get from Carpenter Lane to the Germantown Avenue store in a few minutes (parking may extend your trip), but Ambler is really not next door. Jon noted that of the 10 census tracts supplying the largest number of customers to each of the current stores, nine were identical for the two existing stores. It doesn’t take a management consultant to know that Ambler will be different.

The danger, as I see it, is that Weavers Way will be just another grocery store — a reliable and trustworthy one, to be sure — but not a community institution in the same way. Even now, we have something of a conflict now between Co-op old-timers, who want to keep prices down, and another generation of members, focusing on local crops, fair trade and organic products. 

Weavers Way certainly keeps trying to be more than just another store — the farms, the farm education programming, the community fairs, the new Backyard at Chestnut Hill. Will these be relevant to Ambler? We will have to wait and see.

Larry Schofer