Cooperative Grocer 1999 Retail Operations Survey
We are pleased to present the new Retail Operations Survey, which reports double digit growth in co-op sales during the past year, along with higher than ever gross margins. Those operating margins were needed to cover higher labor expenses while also producing healthy bottom lines. A strong 87% of survey respondents were profitable, and those stores averaged 2.0% in net savings for their member owners.
Sales growth reported by co-ops compares very well with industry averages for same store growth. Although co-op balance sheets often are strong and would support further expansion, most co-ops are not opening new stores. Consequently, co-ops' total market share is shrinking in the organic/natural niche. Nevertheless, on a single store basis, co-op market share may be substantial, and average co-op growth and productivity figures are strong, often higher than comparable private store performance.
This year's Cooperative Grocer survey, like earlier versions, presents an updated set of performance measures for retail food cooperatives. The survey covers many aspects of food retailing, but its comments are largely specific to co-ops.
This report is the product of a new collaboration for the two of us. We have combined the CG survey numbers with the new reporting available through CoCoFiSt, the data sharing software for co-op managers. Our comments take some new directions also.
Although we did not reach our goals for survey participation, we hope we have successfully laid the foundation for a more consistent and more useful data base. We ended up with 62 co-op stores in the survey data base, with half of those stores in our large store category. (See sidebar explaining survey store sizes.)
Wide spectrum of co-ops
There are over 300 cooperatively owned food stores in the US, representing approximately $500 million in sales. Viewed as a virtual chain, cooperatives are third in volume and first in number of natural retail food store outlets. Even if not formally a chain, our "cooperation among cooperatives" principle reinforces and encourages endeavors in this area. Through the Cooperative Grocers Associations and through relationships with cooperative warehouses, co-op retails are realizing some of the benefits of being a chain.
This year's survey respondents reflect wide cooperative diversity as well as certain commonalities:
- Annual sales range from $150,000 to over $50,000,000.
- Profits and losses ranged from +6% to -6%.
- Several hundred work at some co-ops, while there are no paid staff at others.
- Half of the cooperatives own all or a portion of the buildings in which they operate.
- Two-thirds of the stores have service departments such as a deli, bakery, or cafe.
- Two-thirds of the stores that disclosed their major supplier buy primarily through a cooperatively owned distributor.
- About one-third of the stores use scanning.
- More than half the co-ops use either Quickbooks or Peachtree for their accounting, while Microsoft Excel is the spreadsheet used by about 70% of the co-ops.
- About 90% have their fiscal year start in January.
SMALL: Annual Sales Under $750,000With a median sales/square ft/year of $342, these stores account for 19% of all responses
MEDIUM: Annual Sales From $750,000 to $2,000,000With a median sales/square ft/year of $475, these stores account for 24% of all responses
LARGE: Annual Sales Over $2,000,000With a median sales/square ft/year of $799, these stores account for 57% of all responses
Using the data
The centerfold statistical chart is our traditional summary of cooperative performance and includes composite financial statements and ratios. Throughout this report, references to the centerfold section are in bold.
To make the survey report more useful to readers from varied operations, we have:
- provided results for all stores and in three size categories;
- separately stated the results for profitable stores;
- presented composite financial statements and ratios in a centerfold;
- provided a range of responses where deemed informative;
- provided median and quartile results, which frequently are more balanced than is the mean or average; the median divides a population in half, while the quartiles reflect the lower and upper one-fourth (the quartiles are independently calculated on each variable; for example, the gross margin upper quartile reflects the stores with the highest growth rates in the upper quartile.); and,
- introduced a new kind of quartile, based on net income.
How to use this data? We suggest the Yellow Pad approach. It is often dangerous to draw definitive conclusions from any one statistic in this kind of report. We recommend that you read the report with a "yellow pad" in hand and make notes when something strikes you about the trends or how your results compare to the trends. No one statistic should paint a picture. But your yellow pad notes should suggest a story when you are done and could help point your cooperative in a direction to improved performance.
Higher margins, strong growth
Co-ops in this year's survey reported strong results in Net Income along with median Sales Growth that exceeded 10% for the first time in six years.
This figure is almost identical with the industry growth reported in the NaturalFoods Merchandiser (NFM) annual industry review. By the way, in this year's NFM review, the co-op store information is grouped with specialty/gourmet, personal care, gyms, herb shops, and mall stands. But other information in the NFM report is very valuable in providing a natural foods store survey population from which co-ops have been excluded. That not only makes this Cooperative Grocer report especially needed, it makes comparisons with NFM cleaner. The NFM data on natural foods stores should be studied. (Note that NFM uses square footage rather than sales volume to determine store size, but the comparisons remain generally valid.)
Net Income Sources
|Number of stores||12||15||35||62|
|Net Operating Income||3.8%||0.7%||2.6%||2.5%|
|Mortgage Interest Exp||0.1%||0.1%||0.1%||0.1%|
|Other Interest Exp||0.4%||0.3%||0.3%||0.3%|
|Less Other Revenue||-1.0%||-0.9%||-0.7%||-0.7%|
|Patronage Refund Exp||0.0%||0.0%||0.3%||0.2%|
|Net Income/Loss (rounded)||2.2%||0.5%||1.8%||1.7%|
Strong sales led to more operating income for almost all co-ops as well as to healthy Net Income. Co-ops averaged 2.5% in net operating income. After other expenses, revenue and earnings distributions, co-ops achieved a bottom line of 1.7%. Details by store size appear in the accompanying chart.
By contrast with these impressive figures, however, consider the constant upward trend in margins. Strong sales growth and net income achievements may be masking a failure to control costs. As the accompanying table shows quite consistently, year after year co-ops report increasing costs, which they cover by increasing gross margins. Already co-op gross margins are higher than the averages reported in NFM for natural foods stores. Sooner or later, this trend will not be sustainable in the market, as a few co-ops are learning. Co-op management challenges remain: trim expenses, while obtaining greater productivity from labor, space, and assets.
Expense & Gross Margin Trends
|Percent:||Gr. Margin||Labor||MML*||Total Exp.||Net Income|
|*Margin Minus Labor: for details, see below.|
New indicators based on Net Income
We asked several co-op managers how the survey data can best be used to improve our stores. What we got back was: tell us what financial goals to shoot for in order to be in the upper quartile of profitable stores. Since 90% of respondents are profitable, we don't get that information from the profitable column of the centerfold.
Responding to this, instead of restricting the calculations to profitable stores, we calculated the averages for the co-ops that showed the most profitability--the top 25%--the upper quartile in terms of net profits: their sales trends, gross margins, debt to equity ratios, etc. When applied to income statement lines, this further refinement of the ratio analysis creates a profile of excellently performing cooperatives.
We were excited by this idea, so we recalculated the quartiles for all the ratios, but this time the upper quartile referred not to the group of stores with the highest gross margin, for example, but to the average gross margin for stores whose net income was in the upper quartile. This is a hard concept to get at first, but once you do, you can see why it was such a great suggestion.
When this analysis was complete, the three factors that correlated most closely with the excellently performing cooperatives were: sales growth, margin minus labor, and occupancy expense. We will comment on each of these.
See the accompanying Key Success Indicators chart, which shows the correlation for these data in net income quartiles. The upper quartile (UQ) represents approximately 25% of stores (16) with the highest net income The upper middle (UM) represents approximately 25% of stores (15) with the next highest net income; and so on.
(figures for all stores, grouped by net income, with data averaged within each quartile of stores)
|UQ = 25% of stores (16) with highest net income|
UM = 25% of stores (15) with next highest net income
LM = 25% of stores (15) with third highest net income
LQ = 25% of stores (16) with lowest net income
|Margin Minus Labor||15.9%||13.7%||12.4%||11.8%||13.4%|
Sales growth and Net Income growth
Net income correlates highly with sales growth. Small, medium, and large size (i.e., by sales) cooperatives all have about the same median growth rate. When grouped by net margin or profitability, the UQ stores grew at an average of 17.5%, while the LQ stores grew at an average of 7.5%.
Although about 95% of survey respondents reported sales growth, the bad news is that this sales growth translated into net income growth for only about 50% of the stores. Under this trend of diminishing net income, co-op growth could continue, but our ability to increase market share will erode. Compared to Whole Foods, Inc. and Wild Oats, Inc., cooperatives continue to open or acquire fewer new stores. Viewed virtually as one of the three top natural food chains, co-op market share is shrinking. In the long run, losing market share may significantly impair co-ops' competitive ability. Your yellow pad should probably have something recorded about growth.
There may be arguments about using net income to correlate with key success indicators. But in a co-op--and the data does bear this out--net income is what insures the survival and growth of the business. By structure, cooperative net income cannot monetarily enrich an individual--rather, it belongs to the members either collectively or according to each member's patronage. The members can receive their share of net income before it is generated (through discounts at the register), after it is generated (through a patronage dividend system), through a combination of the two, through enhanced services (e.g., using accumulated earnings to help finance an expansion), or through improved economic security (by retaining the net earnings in the business). Using the net income factor as a yardstick makes cooperative sense.
Margin Minus Labor
Margin Minus Labor (MML) is a very valuable tool included in the Key Success Indicators chart. Use MML when comparing your store's data to aggregate data such as the present report. If you just compare margin or just compare labor, you often are comparing apples and oranges. Why? Because stores with different product mixes will have significantly different margins and payrolls.
For example, if your cooperative has a scratch bakery and you compare your overall margin with other stores, most of which don't have a scratch bakery, you will be elated; but when you compare your labor expenses, you will be disappointed. The same is true if you have a really big or really small deli, meat, HABA, or produce section. For averages, see the chart on service department impacts.
Labor, Gross Margin, and Sales Growth
|Stores with Service Dept.||33%||53%||78%|
|with Service Dept.||20.6%||23.4%||23.7%|
|w/o Service Dept.||20.2%||21.4%||18.0%|
|with Service Dept.||36.4%||34.4%||36.9%|
|w/o Service Dept.||32.4%||32.4%||36.2%|
|with Service Dept.||2.8%||-0.7%||1.6%|
|w/o Service Dept.||1.9%||2.1%||3.4%|
|with Service Dept.||39%||12%||10%|
|w/o Service Dept.||12%||11%||13%|
The MML will somewhat, but not completely, turn the apples and oranges into a comparable fruit salad by taking the difference between the gross margin and the labor expense. It allows a better comparison between stores with different product mixes than using either variable alone. Thus, MML comparisons indicate how well your cooperative is managing gross margin and labor expense--two of the most controllable expenses. As you can see from the Key Success Indicators chart, MML has a range of over 4% among survey co-ops--15.9% to 11.8%--and is almost perfectly correlated with net income. If you want your co-op to be in the UQ, emphasis on managing margin minus labor is key.
We also looked at the overall trend in MML, which has declined for the past three years (see "Expense & Gross Margin Trends"). This means that the percentage spread from which to pay all other expenses has narrowed, and is an indication of how we can have sales growth but not as much profit growth. The narrowing trend is likely to continue unless we achieve more economies of scale and become more efficient by adopting each other's best practices in the way that a chain does. While growth and efficiency are not sufficient conditions to define a successful cooperative, they are becoming more necessary conditions.
Occupancy -- and opportunity
The data indicate that the most critical expense other than payroll is Occupancy. Occupancy costs as a percent of sales, like other fixed costs, decrease as sales volume increases. Neither advertising, member discounts, governance costs, other operating expenses, nor administrative costs correlate as strongly to the net income quartiles as do occupancy costs.
Owning vs. Leasing: Impact on Income Statement, Balance Sheet, and Ratios
|Lease site||Mixed||Own site||ALL|
|Number of stores:||31||10||21||62|
|Net Income (Loss)||1.2%||1.1%||2.6%||1.7%|
|Return on Equity||9.8%||6.9%||15.2%||11.1%|
|Return on Assets||4.4%||4.4%||8.5%||6.1%|
It follows that the most profitable stores have the lowest occupancy cost. What may not be obvious is that occupancy costs are also related to critical lease or purchase decisions that have a lasting impact. Unlike most other decisions that can be more easily changed, these decisions can affect profitability for 10 or 20 years. This is why it is important to involve experienced professionals in real estate decisions -- some of the most critical decisions that your co-op will make.
If your goal is to be in the upper quartile of profitability, then your occupancy expense goal should be approximately 3% (though some high performers spend more). See the chart on the previous page for figures related to owning and leasing.
How do co-ops stack up against their competition? We have lots of opportunity.
To appropriately compare co-ops with privately owned stores, we modified the NFM survey numbers to make them comparable with the Cooperative Grocer survey. First we added back an assumed salary for store owners ($15K, $40K, and $60K by store size) and then we compared gross margin, payroll and net income by our size categories.
We found that in every case, gross margins were higher in co-ops than with our competitors. This may be good news or bad news. Maybe we buy better, maybe we have more services, or maybe we price higher. This goes on the yellow pad as an area to research.
Payroll is lower for small co-ops than for small natural food stores -- way to go! But medium and large co-ops show labor expenses substantially above the NFM numbers. Does this imply lower productivity or a different product mix?
A better way to compare is to use the Margin Minus Labor number. Using MML, we find that small co-ops substantially out-perform the private stores while medium and large stores suffer a 1% difference. That's an opportunity area. We certainly have the talent and are building the structures (including the Cooperative Grocers Associations) to do as well and probably better.
When bottom lines are compared under our method, we can conclude that medium size stores suffer an additional .6% in non-labor expenses, but large stores don't, while small stores are about .3% worse. So, small co-ops really stack up well with their counterparts, medium size stores have lots of room for improvement, and large stores should be able to improve an average of 1% -- that's $50,000 a year for a $5,000,000 store! Lots of little notes for the yellow pad from this section.
Balance Sheets: Ours and theirs
The most profitable stores have a lot of cash and don't have much debt. See the accompanying chart showing ratios for stores grouped according to profitability. The most profitable stores have a return on equity of over 20% -- much better than a passbook savings rate. For the individual stores in the upper quartile, this is a very enviable position, but when compared to Whole Foods Inc. (WFI) and Wild Oats Inc. (WOI), the low debt to equity indicates that we are underleveraged.
At the end of December 1999, both WFI and WOI were operating with negative working capital (current assets minus current liabilities). Their current ratios (current assets/current liabilities) were .97 and .79 respectively, compared to a co-op median current ratio of 2.24. The current ratio and working capital are measures of a firm's ability to meet obligations that are coming due within a year. Higher is stronger in terms of the ability to meet obligations, so co-ops clearly show a stronger position here.
At year end, WFI's debt to equity ratio was 1.29 and WOI's was 1.12, while the co-op median was 0.65. Lower is stronger in this case, because debt to equity indicates how much total liability a company has compared to the owners' equity. The median co-op holds 65 cents in debt for every dollar of equity, while WFI and WOI have more debt than they do equity.
But are the co-ops' stronger current ratios and stronger debt to equity ratios better? Probably "yes" in the short run and "no" in the long run. WFI and WOI stated strategies are to rapidly grow their businesses; their strategies are classic market share capture ones. While the co-op sector has several innovative businesses that have demonstrated financial and managerial capacity to successfully open new stores, as a group we have not yet figured out how to effectively use our considerable talent and significantly underleveraged balance sheets to organize and open new cooperatives.
Ratios by Net Profit Quartiles*
|Debt to Equity||0.5%||0.8%||0.9%||1.4%|
|Return on Equity||23.3%||15.9%||6.0%||-8.0%|
|*For detail on net profit quartiles, see Key Success Indicators chart|
This is a shame for several reasons: First, new, effectively organized and run cooperatives can have a meaningful social and economic impact on a community and for a workforce. Secondly, without new store growth, we will not be able to fully realize the best economic benefits for our members. Furthermore, with the right leadership, organizing, and capital, co-ops can sprout in more places than not. Cooperation is a fundamental part of human nature, and many people would love the chance to give that part of their being a good workout.
As shown by the centerfold data and contrary to common opinion, cooperatives are not undercapitalized. What we lack is an effective mechanism for cooperation among cooperatives in the form of leveraging our balance sheets. This is no simple task and would involve overcoming significant management and structural problems so that the leveraged balance sheets don't end up getting lost and do end up creating more cooperative opportunities for consumers and employees.
If you find something on your yellow pad that would help with this, let's talk!
Ratios link disparate elements of financial statements to one another and inform us about their relationship. They can tell us about root strengths and fundamental weaknesses, and they allow us to compare current co-op operations with prior periods and with others in the industry. As we do every year, we caution readers that the ratios presented here are not exhaustive, nor are the results necessarily good or bad. The yellow pad is an important tool when examining ratios. When comparing your store to these ratios remember that service departments, unusually large or small HABA departments, the Own vs. Lease question, and other factors could make some comparisons less relevant. For example, a co-op that own its building almost surely have a lower Sales to Total Assets ratio -- but this would not mean that purchasing the building was a bad decision.
Of course the ratios will also vary because not all co-ops report each year. However, since we do have a sample of about 20% of the 300 co-ops, the overall numbers should be accurate when compared to previous years' surveys.
Sales per Square Foot is a measure of how well the co-op is using its space. Since the facility is one of the largest costs a co-op has and is a fixed denominator, good performance by this measure is vital. This measure will also be influenced by product mix. For example, a large herb section could lower overall store Sales per Square Foot. In general, co-ops have impressive numbers in this area, although the numbers are down slightly from last year.
Sales Per Square Foot Per Year
|CG 1999 median||$342||$475||$799|
|CG 1998 median||278||642||854|
|CG 1997 median||266||643||822|
|CG 1996 median||214||680||699|
Sales per Paid Labor Hour is a measure of efficiency -- an indication of how good the systems in your store are. Like most efficiency measures, it is also influenced by product mix. Co-ops' Sales per Paid Labor Hour figure seems to be shrinking compared to previous years, but much of the variance is likely due to growth in service departments. The CoCoFiSt data is able to break down Sales per Labor Hour by department and shows steady productivity increases in almost every department over time. But since Sales Per Labor Hour in grocery is $200 and Sales per Labor Hour in a deli is $30, if deli sales grow as a percent of total sales, overall store Sales per Labor Hour will be lower. The most important way to measure this ratio is to compare each department with the same departments in other co-ops -- the job of CoCoFiSt.
Sales Per Paid Labor Hour
|CG 1999 median||$42.18||$46.43||$52.69|
|CG 1998 median||45.85||50.12||55.35|
|CG 1997 median||47.27||50.22||52.16|
|CG 1996 median||47.62||48.18||52.96|
The same argument could be used for gross margin, labor expense, and inventory turns. Use your yellow pad notes from studying the Cooperative Grocer survey to help you highlight what areas need more investigation.
Sales to Total Assets and Sales to Net Fixed Assets are indications of how hard your assets are working. Both will be significantly influenced by whether the co-op owns or leases its building, because that asset will show up on the balance sheet for the owners but not for the lessors. The median Sales to Total Assets ratio is 3.7, and the Sales to Net Fixed Assets ratio is 5.6 for co-ops that own their buildings. It is 4.7 and 24.4 for co-ops that lease. Use these figures rather than the aggregate ones to make your comparisons.
The Inventory Turns ratio is a very important one. It is one of the indicators of category management and can reflect how well you pick products, discontinue products, price products, and manage your inventory. It is also another one of those ratios that is significantly affected by product mix. A large HABA department might have 6 turns a year, while a large produce department might turn 100 times a year! Year to year changes in the inventory turns ratio reflect systems effectiveness as well as product mix changes.
The Current Ratio and Debt to Equity ratios were discussed in an earlier section ("Balance Sheets"). Co-ops have high capacity balance sheets poised for providing more goods and services to their members.
Return on Equity (ROE) is a measure of the financial returns compared to what members have invested and accumulated in the cooperative. It is an important indicator. You might compare it to how much money is earned in a safe savings account or a risky Internet stock. Our median ROE is 11.2% and may be understated because it does not directly include cash register discounts and patronage refunds. Not bad -- certainly a lot better than a passbook savings account.
Return on Assets (ROA) is a measure of the financial returns generated by the assets that the cooperative employs. Like Sales to Total Assets, the ownership vs. lease issue influences this ratio. Profitable stores that own their building have a return on Total Assets of 9.0%, while the median of the stores that lease is 10.7%.
Gross Margin, Labor Expense, and Net Income were discussed under Key Indicators. The Margin Minus Labor measure was suggested as a way to make these numbers more comparable in spite of different product mixes.
Discount Expense includes employee discounts, working member discounts, and member sales discounts. Consistent with last year, the smaller the store, the higher the discount expense -- and these higher discounts seem to work well in the smaller stores. (For detail on all ratios, see the summary statistical chart.)
Wages, salaries, benefits: deferred
We plan to publish in the coming year a special survey on manager and staff compensation, giving much more detail and depth than we generated with the present survey.
Member Mission Measures
Our survey also looks at member sales and investment. Both of these reflect how well a co-op is meeting its purpose: building member ownership based on member service. Can a store be said to be doing well as a cooperative if most sales are to non-members or if its members do not spend most of their grocery dollars at the co-op? When this happens, as it does in many of our survey respondents, something must be lacking in the structure, strategy, or marketing of member ownership.
Percent of Sales to Members
Annual Sales Per Member
The percent of sales to members declined from the previous year, possibly from a change in survey population or perhaps from strong sales growth that was not accompanied by strong growth in membership. With a median for all surveyed co-ops of 49%, over half of all co-op sales are going to non-members. Only the upper quartile of medium and large size stores have more than two-thirds of their sales coming from members.
Sales per member figures also declined from the previous year, although this may again be simply a change in survey populations. In fact, small co-ops did not provide a data base adequate for generating averages. However, what remains consistent is that co-ops are not capturing most of their members' grocery dollars. Nationally, annual per capita grocery purchases are over $1400, twice the median figure for co-op member purchases. Capturing more dollars from people already invested in the co-op is an area for improvement.
Lifetime Member Investment
Speaking of being invested, the chart on member investment is somewhat distorted by the fact that many co-ops, especially smaller ones, rely on fees rather than equity investments from their members. These fees do end up in retained earnings and consequently in co-op equity. But compared to member investment, fees tend to bring in less to the co-op, and have other disadvantages -- all unlike equity payments: a) fees may disguise a weak operation by providing an "Other Income" subsidy; b) fees are usually not refundable; and c) fees are taxable income to the co-op.
The boards of directors in surveyed co-ops range in size from 6 to 21, with 7 or 9 directors being the most common. Most of their terms are 2 or 3 years, and most of the boards have monthly meetings. About two-thirds of the boards have employee directors; in most cases these employees are elected at large, although approximately 25% of the employees on co-op boards are elected by other employees. Over 30% of the boards have appointed members in addition to elected members. Mail balloting is now allowed in 2/3 of the co-ops.
Nearly three in four boards surveyed indicate that they are either practicing policy governance or are considering it.
Most board members receive a discount at the register that averages 15%, with a range of 5% to 25%. Stipends for serving on boards are given in about 20% of the cases and most often are in addition to the discount. In many cases, the board chair receives additional compensation.
Make sure each director also has a yellow pad.
Dave Gutknecht is publisher and editor of Cooperative Grocer. Walden Swanson is a consultant for Cooperative Development Services and helped develop CoCoFiSt, the data sharing program whose users were incorporated into the Retail Operations Survey. The NCB Development Corporation made this survey production possible with their strong financial support. Kate Sumberg and Ruffin Slater made many valuable suggestions, and Kate along with folks from Northcountry Cooperative Development Fund and Cooperative Development Services helped with preparation of the data base. Thanks also to Scott Beers of LOTTSA Financial Services for work in prior years in shaping the Retail Operations Survey. For questions about the survey, contact Walden at email@example.com or Dave at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Website note: Apologies for the chart below being an incomplete version of the original.]
Cooperative Grocer 1999 Retail Operations Survey
Statistical Summary of Income Statement, Balance Sheet, and Ratios
By Dave Gutknecht and Walden Swanson
|Sales under $750,000||$750,000 to $2,000,000||Sales of over $2,000,000||All Responses|
|15.6||15.5||17.6||16.9||WAGES and SALARIES||16.8||16.6||16.9||16.6|
|1.9||1.8||1.9||1.9||PAYROLL TAXES & WORKER'S COMP||1.9||2.0||1.9||2.0|
|1.2||1.2||1.4||1.4||WORKING MEMBER DISCOUNTS||0.4||0.4||0.5||0.4|
|1.2||1.3||1.1||0.7||DEPREC. AND AMORTIZATION||1.4||1.4||1.3||1.3|
|0.8||0.7||1.2||1.1||ADVERTISING & PROMOTION||1.3||1.3||1.3||1.2|
|-1.0||-1.1||-0.9||-1.0||LESS: OTHER REVENUE||-0.7||-0.7||-0.7||-0.7|