In recent years, several retail business owners on Williamson Street have shared an unpleasant experience. They've walked into the Willy Street Co-op and found the same products they sell in their own stores on the co-op’s shelves — at lower prices.
Is that a perversion of what a neighborhood cooperative is supposed to be? Or just capitalism running its course?
Retailers say they're concerned that the co-op’s attitude is shifting from a neighborhood partner to a Whole Foods-style corporation most concerned about the bottom line. The co-op says it’s always experimenting with offering new products, but it's the same organization at heart: a place that cares about its neighbors and needs to turn a profit.
“Our intention is still the same as it’s always been: we are interested in working with our neighbors,” said Brendon Smith, communications director for the co-op.
The only major product change at the flagship co-op location, 1221 Williamson St., has been the recent addition of beer, cider and wine, Smith said.
Before the co-op was granted a liquor license, some neighbors expressed concern that offering alcohol at the co-op would take a bite out of business at Star Liquor, located a few doors down at 1209 Williamson St. The co-op said selling alcohol was a way to boost “stagnant if not slightly declining” sales by $400,000 to $600,000.
Adam Casey, general manager of Star Liquor, said he’s always had a good relationship with the co-op. He hopes there won’t be too much product overlap, but acknowledged he’s worried by the idea that the co-op’s alcohol sales could eventually “drive us out of the neighborhood.”
According to Nikki Anderson, the owner of Change Boutique at 1252 Williamson St., the Star Liquor story is not an isolated incident.
“Star Liquor was a reflection of the direction (the co-op is) going: the lack of consideration for what their members and the neighborhood businesses are saying,” she said.
Anderson said over the last few years, additions to the co-op’s clothing offerings have had a significant impact on business at her fair trade clothing store located just across the street.
As of a few years ago, Change Boutique and the co-op only overlapped on a few brands and small items like wallets, purses, hats and gloves, Anderson said. Co-op staff would coordinate with Anderson to make sure they weren’t purchasing the same items.
But then the co-op started offering shirts, leggings and sweatshirts — sometimes the same brands that Anderson offered, but at lower prices. With the co-op’s larger customer traffic and convenient parking lot, it was hard to compete.
Tiffany Olson, owner of the Madison Greenhouse Store at 1354 Williamson St., stopped carrying mushroom growing kits when she found them for lower prices at the co-op.
She’s “not too terribly upset,” she said, and opted to stop carrying any duplicate items.
“I feel like it belongs in (my) store, (but) it’s a waste of effort to try to compete,” she said.
Dale Stolldorf, owner of Pieces Unimagined, also wasn’t upset when the same greeting card line that he carries showed up at the co-op.
“I think they got too big and it got too corporate," Stolldorf said. "They’ve got to make their bottom line."
In early 2016, Anderson sent a memo to the Greater Williamson Area Business Association (GWABA) expressing her concerns about the expanding clothing lines.
After the memo, she spoke with co-op representatives. Through those conversations, Anderson said she recognized that having nearby retail micromanaging the co-op’s inventory wasn’t a practical idea. Instead, they brainstormed cross-promotional ideas that could drum up business for both parties.
Those ideas didn’t pan out, and Anderson decided to deal with the changes on her own until the co-op started selling alcohol, which “hit a chord,” she said.
WILLY: WE CAN CO-EXIST
Smith said that, other than alcohol, there have not been major changes to the products offered at the co-op.
The co-op has offered products like plants, aprons, purses, candles and housewares for decades, he said, although there may be slightly more non-food items available now.
The product mix is always evolving, he said, “but food will always be our primary focus. That’s our reason for being around. We are a grocery store.”
He added that other than the recent interaction with Star Liquor, the store hasn’t heard complaints about the products it offers. Ald. Marsha Rummel, who represents the neighborhood, said in an email that other than alcohol, she hasn’t heard any complaints about the co-op's products.
“I think we’re doing a great job of coexisting and providing a great selection of products,” Smith said.
He said because of the opening of a new location on Madison's north side and an expansion project at the Middleton location, he’s felt “a little behind in some promotional opportunities” for the east-side co-op. Once things calm down, he hopes the co-op can re-examine opportunities to work its neighbors.
A DIFFERENT STANDARD?
Some retailers say that as a neighborhood cooperative, the Willy Street Co-op should be held to a different standard than other grocery stores.
If its goal is to make money at any cost, Anderson said, it has to understand that it's “going to put the rest of us out of business.” And owners should change the name from a “co-op” to “Willy Street Mart,” Stolldorf said.
“If they were a mart, I probably wouldn’t have moved here,” Stolldorf said. “If you’re a mart, go for it, get that bottom line.”
Anderson’s lease is up in nine months and at this point, she’s not sure she’s going to renew it, although she said the co-op's product mix is only one factor in that decision.
“I hate to paint a negative picture of the work they do well, which is offer quality food,” Anderson said. “I buy food from them literally every day ... They add a lot of value to the neighborhood to the extent that they stick to what their core values are.”
The market is very competitive for grocery stores right now, Smith said, and the co-op is a for-profit business. Owners like the idea of the “triple bottom line,” of people, planet and profit, he said.
“People and planet are a big parts of that, but we do need to make a profit to do the good things we do in the community,” he said.