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Mercantile weathers winds of change

April 24, 2008

5 Min Read
Mercantile weathers winds of change

When Jeanie Wells started shopping at the Community Mercantile in Lawrence, Kan., in 1996, the store was losing money and competing fiercely with Lawrence's new Wild Oats Natural Marketplace.

The board of trustees and the store management were struggling to keep the cooperative's shelves stocked and were concerned the store would close. Lawrence, a college town with a population of about 80,000, didn't seem to be able to support both stores.

But the community rallied behind the Mercantile, says Wells, who is now the Mercantile's general manager, and the Wild Oats store closed later that year during company reorganization.

"I know that the community was really trying to support us … because they continued to shop our store when we really struggled …," Wells says. "The shelves were sparsely stocked, the store was inadequately staffed, etc. We knew that we were perceived as David against Goliath and people really wanted to support us because we were the locally owned underdog."

During that time, the store did a number of things to try to keep local support and build a sense of community. The store hosted community dinners and fund-raising events. The co-op also hosted the area's first community-supported agriculture programs, allowing customers to pick up bags of local produce from the CSAs at the store. Wells says she thinks these were the things that emphasized that the store was in it for the community and bought the co-op grace with the town until it could become a stronger resource.

Now the Mercantile, affectionately known as the Merc, is thriving. Begun as a buying club in the early 1970s and opened as a 1,000-square-foot store in 1974, the co-op's sales have more than doubled in the past decade. In 1993, the store moved to a new location with 9,000 square feet, and upgraded to another larger location in 2001. Now the store is within walking distance of downtown Lawrence and the University of Kansas, bordering a neighborhood and large park with a disc golf course.

When the Merc almost went out of business competing with Wild Oats, the management decided to begin its education program and renew its outreach efforts in earnest. Wells credits the store's past struggles for its current success. "That was a real turning point—a defining time for the store," she says. "The board and management really started focusing on improving systems and outreach."

The store's employees overhauled the business processes, creating a personnel evaluation system and standardizing staff training. They also strove for better purchasing practices. Externally, the Merc began to emphasize making people feel welcome.

"When I started [working there], the Merc felt exclusive and cliquish," Wells says. "We've worked hard to change that."

One way the Merc now achieves more inclusiveness is through its education and outreach programs, which provide school programs and nutrition, wellness and cooking classes at the store. The co-op started a foundation to help finance the effort.

Two full-time employees lead educational programs. Both have master's degrees in nutrition education and offer presentations geared to diverse groups of people including retirees, teenage mothers, college students and children.

Merc educators visit classrooms to teach students how to read food labels. By leading programs outside the co-op, Merc staff members can reach out to community members who might not otherwise patronize the store.

The Merc offers more than 100 classes at the store every year, many of them selling out in advance. The classes are mostly about food and health, and generally range in price from $10 to $20 per person, with a discount for co-op members.

Cooking classes are the most popular, Wells says, especially when they're taught by chefs from Kansas City who would charge much more for the same class at a culinary institute.

"People take a class as a date, or a women's group will sign up together," Wells says. "The chefs love to teach here—they love the teaching environment."

Even if co-op members don't take a class, they benefit by receiving the Merc's monthly newsletter with recipes and articles on health and wellness, edited by the Merc's staff.

After teaching community members about food and health, the Merc offers as much information about the food it sells as possible. The store's buyers try to obtain locally produced food when it's available and let customers know where their food comes from. The Merc has been labeling the place of origin on all of the store's produce for the last few years, even though no law mandates this labeling. "That way, customers can decide whether to buy a Kansas apple, a Washington apple or an apple from New Zealand," Wells says.

To help promote its locally grown and produced food, the Merc is beginning a new labeling program called "Miles to the Merc," which shows the customer the number of miles the food has traveled if it was produced within 200 miles of the store. The program is a result of a member survey with 700 responses showing an interest in buying local products. With more than 3,400 members, the Merc communicates through surveys and an annual meeting, which usually draws about 400 people.

For the future, Wells says she wants the store to respond to customers' desire for a more convenient shopping experience. The Merc may also add a seating area where customers can eat food they purchase. While the Merc has grown significantly since it almost closed 10 years ago, Wells says a goal is to measure the store's accessibility and its members' and customers' diversity.

"We've done so much outreach; we think it's working, but it's hard to track," Wells says. "Even though it was started by a bunch of hippies, we want the store to be welcoming and accessible to all."

Lisa Nieman is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 1/p. 70

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