Chico Natural Foods Co-op
Year founded: 1973
Number of members: 3,000
Equity investment: $200
Number of employees: 53
Retail square feet: 3,300
Often when sales are flat, retailers look to marketing initiatives to entice new customers and boost revenue. Savvy retailers also look inward and consider the quality of its employee relationships and its connection to good customer service and sales. When Liza Tedesco became general manager of Chico Natural Food Co-op in Chico, California, six years ago, sales had been flat and staff were not engaged. The co-op’s reputation in the community was suffering because of a perception that it was an exclusive club. She believed that one of the ways to increase sales and make the co-op more accessible was to ramp up the service culture at the co-op by establishing certain human resource systems and encouraging two-way communication between management and staff.
The first order of business was to survey the staff to figure out what was not functioning well and work toward solutions. “We learned that our human resource practices were not consistent, so the staff didn’t know what to expect, and we had no robust training,” Tedesco said. She knew that in order to achieve the results she wanted it was going to require a significant investment in time and training for both managers and staff. It was a tough sell because sales had stagnated and there was a wage freeze for employees, but the board agreed with Tedesco that investing in personnel through training, and better wages and benefits would pay off in the long run.
Tedesco said that she needed “new energy in the store” and a fresh perspective. She worked with Carolee Colter, human resources consultant, on helping her create better accountability as well as opening up channels of communication. “It was a great synergy. Carolee asked people what they thought of the co-op, their vision and goals, and people really responded well to being asked their input.” The management team also worked on performance expectations and having proactive communication with staff. They also did training on finances for staff, so they could see how their work connected to the bottom line.
Things didn’t change overnight, but after two years there was very noticeable change. Sales grew in the double digits. Customers perceived the co-op as friendly and helpful. Staff pride had grown. “We were being seen as a viable opportunity for people through our workplace,” Tedesco said. She said that all the things they’d put in place to improve communication “were gaining traction.”
“Our growth has been driven through our customer count. It shows that changes in the human element and visual communication has meant that more people have found us more accessible. We’ve been able to normalize the co-op experience,” Tedesco said. She believes that without investing in staff training, communication and benefits, they would not have been able to reach their goals.
As they’ve spent the intervening years working together on the work culture, one outcome is a new initiative they’ve launched this year. They’ve developed a seven-module training called the Co-op University. The sessions include workplace basics, including co-op education, customer service, shoplifter awareness, policies and finance, customer loyalty, dealing with customer complaints and difficult situations, and sexual harassment prevention. The curriculum encourages participation and conversation about the things they’ve learned. Once staff have been through all seven, they get a certificate of completion.
Training and education also doesn’t stop there. The co-op funds a block of classes for staff at a local community college that allows employees to continue their education in technical areas like communication and management. Tedesco thinks that using external resources also helps people be better at their jobs and contributes to a service mentality at the co-op. “We are reinventing our work culture by introducing new ideas and new ways of thinking and relating to each other,” she said.
Read the course catalog for Chico Natural Food Co-op’s Co-op University All-Staff Training program: CoopU-course-catalog