Independent Natural Food Retailers Association (INFRA) founder and President/CEO Corinne Shindelar stepped down from her role—one she held for 15 years—on March 1. We asked her to reflect on the early days of INFRA, the transformation of independent retailing and what’s left to do.
What was the state of independent natural retailing when you started INFRA?
The challenges of retailing 15 years ago were similar to what they are today. Independents were all individually trying to determine how best to navigate the rapidly increasing competition in their space. Supernatural chains owned by venture capital and private equity were multiplying quickly. Private label organic products were showing up at retail where they didn’t before, and basically most independents were without the depth of resources to be able to weather the upcoming wave.
You know, in 2004-2005 Expo East and West, respectively, many in the industry said that INFRA couldn’t be done and that independents would never collaborate. The biggest need that I filled, which I was not aware of at the time, was building a community of like-minded people.
What are some of the biggest changes in independent natural retailing you’ve seen over your time at the helm of INFRA?
Most independent natural and organic food retailers are in the business of selling groceries that matter and make a difference. The biggest transformation and change that I have seen in the members of INFRA is how they approach their missions and visions.
Over the past number of years, I have seen many of the members of INFRA adopt and adapt because of their association with each other and the expertise that is available to them through being a member. Members are better prepared to grow their businesses, operate on tighter margins, have succession planning in place and maintain their relevancy in their communities by working smarter through the collective brain power of the association.
How do you see the role of independents changing going forward?
I have always stated that if independents can keep their heads above water, make good choices and decisions, and meet their customers were they are at, independents will win in the organic and natural food space. Our economic models are set up in such a way that you either need to be really big (think Amazon and Kroger) or you need to be nimble (think independents and co-ops), yet you still must deliver on your promise. That promise for independents is going to look different, depending on the need that they are filling in their communities. The relevance, however, is critical, as the next generations are more interested in supporting companies for their mission relative to climate change, sustainable economics and community health, versus accumulation of goods and wealth.
What's next for you?
I am planning on freelancing in different areas in the supply chain. I plan to continue my advocacy work and serving in cooperation with the Non GMO Project, Climate Collaborative, Organic Voices, Hirshberg [Entrepreneur] Institute and others. I am hoping to continue to build collaborations across retailer communities, specifically cooperatives and independents, as there are very few people out there that have the level of insight to these communities that my 38-plus years of retailing and organizing has provided.
For me, what is next is pretty exciting because I can push buttons and boundaries and not have to worry about conflicts of interest in that process. I want to continue to help build sustainable business models that include compassion, transparency and integrity in a way that having those values and making decisions on those values is considered good sound business practices.
Yep, I am going to continue to have fun in the industry challenging the thinking and fighting the good fight for organic health.