PCC Markets Addresses Competition Cooperatively

From January-February 2016

PCC Natural Markets
Seattle, Washington

Year founded:  1953
Number of members:  55,000
Equity investment:  $60
Number of employees:  1,500
Number of locations: 10 stores with an 11th opening in Summer 2016

PCC (Puget Consumers Co-op) Natural Markets in Seattle is one of the United States' largest food co-ops and a market leader in the Northwest region.  One of the things that makes PCC unique is that they have had long-standing roots in their community since the 1950s.  They were far ahead of the curve in the development of the local and organic food movement, and have built a widespread and steady following over the years.  The co-op has also long experienced intense competition too, but today’s fierce marketplace offers their organization the same kind of challenges many other food cooperatives have to address.  The co-op’s CEO, Cate Hardy, said that they are continuing to evaluate what’s working well and where they need to shift their priorities to continue to thrive into the future.

“The great news is that the Northwest community had had a long understanding of the value of natural products, but this has also attracted a lot of competition,” Hardy said.  She said that it would be mistake to assume customers will love them only because they are a co-op doing good things.  “To differentiate we’ve had a focus on excellent store operations and a strong prepared foods department.”  She said that 90 percent of what their deli sells is made from scratch in-house, and their stores offer service and convenience, including seating areas for fast-casual dining and lots of grab-n-go.  “We put the same kind of attention into our deli area as our grocery sections.  It’s part of our ‘foodie-ism.’  We pride ourselves on being excellent operators.”

"We should be the leader in our own market."

Cate Hardy, CEO, PCC (Puget Consumers Co-op) Natural Markets, Seattle, WA

However, one of the things that concerns Hardy going forward is that as conventional markets are increasing their sales of organic food, there’s not enough production to meet demand, and smaller players, like food co-ops and independents, have the potential to be squeezed out of product availability.  “I think it’s a risk for the entire industry,” she said.

That’s why she thinks maintaining strong relationships throughout the food chain with vendors, shoppers and staff is one of the keys to the future of food co-op retailing, and demonstrating why it matters to do business with cooperatives.  “We have values we’re committed to,” Hardy said.  “The onus is on us to be efficient and excellent and committed to the community in ways to be of value to our shoppers.”

The question of continued relevance is not far from her thoughts, and PCC is making membership and building that relationship a major focus of their organization this coming year.  “We want to explore making membership relevant to those who are currently our shoppers, but not owners,” Hardy said.  “Our goal is to show why being a co-op member matters.”

As for opening their 11th location she said for PCC to maintain its marketplace leadership position it needs to meet people where they are. “If we don’t someone else will,” Hardy said.  “We have to have locations that are convenient for people.”

At the end of the day, though, Hardy said the most important aspect of the PCC brand is the staff.  “They are the people who build that trust and the relationships in our industry.  You may find tenure in other parts of the grocery industry, but you don’t always find warmth.  Our staff are warm, welcoming, informed.”  That’s why she thinks the co-op’s success should be predicated on the co-op difference in quality products, service and staff treatment.  “After all the things PCC has always done and stood for, we should be the leader in our own market.”

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