Natural Foods Merchandiser

Creative commuting: How to lead the way to work

by Carolee Colter

The price of oil may fluctuate but its general direction is up, and with it, the cost of getting to work. As a retailer, assisting your employees with commuting alternatives can not only ease environmental effects but also spark creativity and build loyalty.

"Rising gas prices are cutting into everyone's personal budgets," says Susan Meisinger, president and CEO of the Society for Human Resources Management, a professional association based in Alexandria, Va. "Employers are offering extra help as a tool to retain employees and improve employee morale."

A June survey by SHRM shows that the most common employer response to the gas crisis is to increase reimbursement for miles driven in personal cars on company business to the maximum the Internal Revenue Service allows, which was 58.5 cents per mile as of July.

Other retailers say they have attempted to cut down on the amount of driving required by offering flexible work schedules or telecommuting. Fewer retailers report encouraging alternatives to solo driving. Only 14 percent say they offer discounts on public transportation, while 12 percent assist with organizing carpools.

Of course, rising gas prices isn't the only issue at stake—there's also the health of the planet. Actively assisting employees to bike, walk, bus or carpool to work not only helps retailers financially but also helps a naturals-focused employer "walk the talk."

For example, take the Good Food Store in Missoula, Mont. With 195 people on staff, the store was Missoula's Sustainable Commuting Champion in the 2007 and 2008 Bike Walk Bus Week Commuter Challenge for the 100-plus-employee category.

The yearly Commuter Challenge is sponsored by a county government program that helps local businesses, institutions and individuals make transportation choices that improve air quality and reduce congestion. Companies compete for the highest percentage of workforce commuting by means other than driving alone in a car.

The Good Food Store supports a vigorous bike-to-work culture. A secure shed accommodating up to 20 employee bikes gets heavy use, even in winter. Among the dedicated bike riders is Doug Burke, human resources and payroll assistant. Burke's boss, Human Resources Director Adina Roe, calls him "our champion" and credits his leadership for the store's victory in the Commuter Challenge.

In 2007, Burke had departments compete for the highest participation rates. While this generated interest among staff, Burke concluded that departments varied too much in size to allow a level playing field.

For this year's challenge, he randomly sorted all employees into five teams. On a chart in the hallway outside the store offices, team members noted for each scheduled shift whether they traveled by bike, bus, walking or carpool. As the week progressed, the buzz increased, and staffers congregated in the hall between shifts to see how their teams were doing.

In addition to the challenge's official prizes and raffles for all contestants, the Good Food Store held its own drawings. Store management also committed to donating a bike to a local nonprofit if the store won the challenge.

The Good Food Store hosted a bike maintenance workshop for employees and customers, with bike mechanics providing parts and labor free of charge, while representatives from the county organization sold bike helmets for $6 each.

Throughout Bike Walk Bus Week, the store offered "nonpolluter commuter" deals every day on cookies, smoothies, juice and coffee to biking, walking, busing or carpooling customers. In the end, the Good Food Store won the challenge with 57 percent participation, and a 14-year-old girl got a new bike donated by the store. Employees won prizes ranging from $100 gift cards to an iPod. Of the 749 participants, 639 took sustainable transportation to work every day, helping the planet by saving 3,237 single-occupancy vehicle trips in the process.

They all saved money, too.

Carolee Colter is the principal of Community Consulting Group. Contact her at [email protected]

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 10/p. 70

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