Suggestion Book

Norman Weiss, Weavers Way Purchasing Manager

Greetings and thanks for writing. As usual, suggestions and responses may have been edited for brevity, clarity and/or comedy. In addition, no idea, concept, issue, remark, phrase, description of event, word or word string should be taken seriously. This also applies to the previous sentence.

Back in August, I wrote a little about transparency, and how it’s not really practiced in the co-op world. Transparency is gaining importance in the business world, though, as businesses come to believe transparency is basically a brand attribute that can be marketed. I recently received an invitation to a trade show on the subject. Some of the key participants are large companies like Walmart, Hershey’s and Unilever. In classic business fashion, the marketers of this trade show describe it like this: “Join us for this breakthrough event where you’ll get insider information on the ways in which consumers increasingly seek and value transparency.” That’s right, pay to attend the show to gain the benefit of “insider information” on transparency. It will be interesting to see where transparency in retail ends up, like the terms “local” and “natural.” Because there is no agreed-upon definition, marketers use these terms to mean whatever suits them to help sell their products.

Mary, our editor, asked me to write about Ambler this month. There are some things about our new Ambler store that are new to us, much different than our other two locations. It has 85 parking spots. It has a loading dock. It has more space than all our other stores combined — more than double the frozen and refrigerated display space of Chestnut Hill, probably triple the dry grocery space, double the Prep Food space. There’s a sit-down cafe and a back-stock room bigger than the entire first floor of the Mt. Airy store. So it’s big — small by conventional grocery-store standards, but big for us.

What will we do with all this space? It’s always amazing how fast space gets gobbled up. Our main natural-food supplier stocks more than 40,000 items, which is an overwhelming number of choices, so we decided we’re just going to pick the top 100 items from each category and stock them. It’s a very formulaic and data-centric approach, yet democratic, as these are the items people are voting for with their dollars. (In the biz, this is known as “category management,” a favorite retail buzz word.)

No, really, we’re not doing that. Actually, our buyers have been toiling away, plowing through our data to pick the products our shoppers are used to, but also to stock some new things, since we have room to try them out. It should be an interesting process and we are certainly looking for member and shopper feedback about what to stock.

Most of our regular lines, and core local items like Merrymead milk, will be in the mix. We’ll also have some new Ambler-local lines, like bread from Alice’s Bakery (especially since Metropolitan Bakery doesn’t deliver out there). Ambler will be a work in progress for a few months, until we figure out the larger space, different products and new shoppers, so please bear with us as we adapt.

Lest you fear we’ll get too local with the Ambler project, turns out we’re spending plenty of money with large corporations, too. Most store equipment is manufactured by big companies, some multinational. We are, in a small way, contributing to the global demand for industrial products like steel, electronics, chemicals, building materials and more. We kept a few building trades busy for six months, plus we employed architects, engineers, lawyers and consultants. Some of these are small, local businesses, but some are large and not so local.

All in all, we will have contributed to the economy to the tune of over $4 million. Of course, that’s compared with our expected annual sales of more than $8 million in Ambler; what with our stores and farms and such, we’ll be handling north of $30 million a year in business. So we do contribute significantly to the local economy, just like it says we’re supposed to in Weavers Way End 1 — “There will be a thriving and sustainable local economy providing meaningful jobs, goods and services to our members and the community” — even if a good chunk of the money goes to multinational corporations.

Part of what got me thinking about the source of all these materials is that Eric, formerly of our Mt. Airy produce department, now the produce manager in Ambler (being able to promote more people from within is one of the benefits of expansion), asked me to order some displays — racks, pegs, pushers, all typical supermarket devices. In placing the order, I noticed the company, called DCI, is a subsidiary of the Marmon Co., itself a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, of Warren Buffett fame, the world’s third-largest publicly held company.

Chestnut Hill patrons may have also noticed Berkshire Hathaway affecting their shopping life, as the B-H real-estate offices have 18 parking spaces for their exclusive use in the back lot. Maybe if we keep growing, we’ll get large enough to take over former public parking spots for our use. (The secret Co-op End 8 states: “There will be a sustainable privileged class, luxuriating in products no one needs and few can afford but requiring many jobs to produce, resulting in a stable, if somewhat exploitative, economy.”)

suggestions and responses:

s: “Can we have chunks of watermelon in a container, or fat slices wrapped in plastic?”
r: (Jean) Good idea — we’ll see if we can work out the logistics.

s: “Plain flavor Forager Cashegurt (big size), plus non-dairy Talenti flavors.”
r: (Matt) I’ve been evaluating our non-dairy yogurts recently. I’ll put plain Forager on my radar. As for non-dairy Talenti flavors, there are a couple that are currently not available from our distributor but we are trying to convince them to make those available to us. If there’s a particular flavor you’re interested in, please email me at

s: “Honest Tea has two new unsweetened varieties. The cinnamon is fantastic. Please carry it. Thanks.”
r: (Matt) Space is an issue, but we are always looking for more unsweetened items. I’ll look into the new Honest Teas.

s: “This is my third request for organic Greek yogurt!”
r: (Matt) Due to customer interest, we now carry the Wallaby 32-ounce Greek non-fat plain organic. Thanks for your persistence!

s: “Sole Kombucha makes a wonderful flavor, Raspberry Lavender. Pretty please!”
r: (Matt) Thanks for the suggestion, I’ll look into it.

s:“The new sliced cheddar is tasteless — more like American cheese than cheddar. Is it possible to get the Cabot Vermont cheddar back?”
r: (Shawn) This was part of our move from Boar’s Head to Dietz & Watson. I do agree with you that the D&W is not as flavorful. We’ve tried some other truly sharp cheddars like New York but then we were told that the Boar’s Head cheddar we had is the same as Cabot, so we’re going to use that going forward.

s: “Why can’t we get loose organic apples? The bagged Gala are really hit or miss, sometimes OK, often not very good. Loose would allow for change in quantity and variety, especially since apples are part of the 'dirty dozen' in terms of pesticides.”
r: (Jean) Strange as it may seem, this is the first request I’ve had for loose organic apples. I’ll consider carrying them. (Norman) FYI, I understand that growing organic apples in Pennsylvania is difficult due to relatively high moisture — both rain and humidity — plus insect pressure and blight and other diseases. It’s not surprising there are limited options for organic apples in our region. We currently deal directly with three apple growers: Three Springs, Beechwood and Solebury. Three Springs and Beechwood use integrated pest management, which seems like a good balance between sustainable growing and remaining economically viable.

s: “Has anyone ever proposed the idea of a co-op casino? I love gambling, it offers G-d a chance to directly reward me in cash for my good behavior and I’d prefer to gamble in my own neighborhood.”
r: (Norman) Funny you mention it, there was a footnote in our Ambler market survey about this opportunity, but we dismissed it so we could concentrate on our core mission of offering certified gluten-free bananas and seltzer. Maybe after hours, the Ambler café can turn into Nathan Detroit’s Organic Craps.