Can a volunteer-run grocery store successfully work through the pandemic?

Discussion
Photo: Good Grocer
Feb 02, 2021
Matthew Stern

After having to close its doors in 2018 with an eye towards an eventual relocation, a south Minneapolis grocer with a staff largely made up of volunteers is finally on the way to doing business again, but the grocery landscape it is returning to is much different than the one it left.

The retailer, called Good Grocer, plans to reopen in a 9,000-square-foot location, twice as large as its initial incarnation, which it had to close due to the expansion of an interstate highway, according to the Star Tribune. Before closing, the grocer was operating with around 90 percent of its staff as volunteers. The staff, which handles cashier, bagging, cleaning and stocking duties, was asked to work 2.5 hours per month in exchange for a 20 percent discount on groceries. Good Grocer has recruited 400 volunteers so far for the coming new location with an eventual goal of recruiting hundreds more.

Requesting that loyal customers volunteer to work at the grocery store is, however, a bigger imposition than it would have been just 11 months ago. With the novel coronavirus pandemic still raging and newly emerging, faster-spreading variants causing experts consternation, there are still potential health risks attached to staying inside grocery stores for an extended period of time.

While masking has become standard operating procedure for U.S. grocery staff, workers in the channel demonstrate a higher-than average rate of asymptomatic COVID-19 infection. A recent Wall Street Journal article points out that the nation continues to experience grocery store-related COVID-19 outbreaks and serious tragedies surrounding them.

As for the use of volunteer workers in the pandemic-era, one of the U.S.’s most talked about volunteer-reliant co-op grocers, the Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn, had its business model, temporarily rattled by the pandemic, according to an April, 2020 GrubStreet article. The co-op, notoriously draconian about members attending to their shifts, suspended its 17,000 members from working when Gov. Cuomo announced that non-essential staff should stay home. The co-op brought in 55 temporary employees to handle operational duties.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What new challenges do you see for grocery operations that utilize volunteers, given the variety of safety concerns brought about by COVID-19? Do you see such community-based stores becoming more popular than they have been or will the risks posed by the pandemic prevent people from taking part?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"Community based stores and co-ops most certainly have a role to play going forward, especially as many consumers are shopping more locally and now crave human connectivity."
"This trend has been large in progressive markets like Minneapolis for some time, but is now becoming more of a national trend."
"There is no question that COVID-19 changed the rules for all grocery businesses. Those that relied upon volunteer labor were the hardest hit."

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7 Comments on "Can a volunteer-run grocery store successfully work through the pandemic?"


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Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

Community based stores and co-ops most certainly have a role to play going forward, especially as many consumers are shopping more locally and now crave human connectivity. The challenges of running the shop during a pandemic are not much different than those of mainstream grocers. Although it may be somewhat more difficult to get volunteers because of safety concerns, a lot of people engaged in community stores are very committed so I don’t see this as an insurmountable issue.

Matthew Pavich
BrainTrust

Having lived in South Minneapolis, I can attest to the strength of the co-op and local food movement that exists in that market. The concept is a winner on numerous fronts. People want to support local businesses. The math also makes sense as a lot of families would gladly surrender 2.5 hours of their time every month for a 20 percent reduction to their grocery budget. It also aligns nicely with the growth of local and sustainable products. This trend has been large in progressive markets like Minneapolis for some time, but is now becoming more of a national trend. Finally, people want to be a part of something important and this gives them the opportunity to contribute to their community in a meaningful way.

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

There is no question that COVID-19 changed the rules for all grocery businesses. Those that relied upon volunteer labor were the hardest hit. The good news is that people wanted to shop closer to home. As essential businesses they faced fewer restrictions on being open. The bad news is that because workers were volunteers, they were not classified as essential workers.

Restrictions are being slowly lifted but the concerns remain. However even if the stores follow all the current safety guidelines I expect recruiting and retaining volunteers will be harder.

Mel Kleiman
BrainTrust

When you look at the safety concerns around COVID-19 I think they will be diminishing quickly as we reach a level where there are enough people who have either been vaccinated or have had COVID-19.
You will also see the trend of volunteer grocery stores expand in some markets because COVID-19 has made more people aware of the need for community action and involvement.

Gary Sankary
BrainTrust
To make this work you really need a dedicated population of co-op members who are committed to the success of the co-op and, importantly, are willing to extend that commitment by donating what is a very precious commodity these days, their time, to work in a grocery store. Really the purpose for these volunteers is to build a stronger connection with the co-op community and have a deeper stake in the operations of the store. To rely on volunteers to actually run the business however, that’s not a winning proposition for most co-ops in my opinion. The biggest issue co-ops face today is competition. Organic healthy food, once a differentiator for co-ops, is available everywhere in the market and often at sharper prices. To compete co-ops have to operate like big grocers. This requires a workforce, in most roles, with highly specialized skills. Grocery wages have always been near the top of the retail scale for this reason. Meat cutters, produce teams, health and wellness associates, even cashiers and deli teams — these positions need… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom
Guest

Not to quibble here, but if one receives a discount, then it’s a form of compensation … so this isn’t “really” staffed by volunteers.

I won’t comment on whether I like the idea or not — (perhaps incredibly) I’m rather ambivalent about it — but it seems rather presumptuous that someone can simply step in and assume some kind of job (in this case one of the many jobs at a grocery). So whether it works or not depends a lot on the type of people who volunteer. People with a background in the industry, be they retired or simply idled, will have a large advantage over random people off the street. How viable is it over the long term? Will the retired wish to return to that status? Will the idled eventually find paid employment? I don’t know, but I think it will be a struggle.

Rachelle King
BrainTrust

Well, if this isn’t a case of good idea meets bad timing. The pandemic is certainly going to damper volunteer support due to safety concerns. Worse, it’s difficult to consider those who would risk safety just to get the discount because of job loss or reduction. Safety has to be the number one priority but even still, it’s a tough proposition.

On the one hand, the pandemic has strengthened community ties and people may be more sensitive to the value that a community-based store can bring. But a global pandemic is not the time to accelerate this business model. Still, I’d like to believe that good ideas will still be good ideas when the timing is right.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Community based stores and co-ops most certainly have a role to play going forward, especially as many consumers are shopping more locally and now crave human connectivity."
"This trend has been large in progressive markets like Minneapolis for some time, but is now becoming more of a national trend."
"There is no question that COVID-19 changed the rules for all grocery businesses. Those that relied upon volunteer labor were the hardest hit."

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