Thursday, February 13, 2014

Save Money by Shopping at Food Co-ops

Food co-ops (the word is an abbreviation of co-operative) are organisations in which consumers band together and purchase food of good quality at reasonable prices, arranging their own sources of capital, supply, and delivery. If your finances are completely overstretched you could try to alleviate pressure on your wallet.  If you've ever pooled resources with a few friends to take advantage of a cheap bulk buy that comes in a quantity too large for one household, that's an informal co-operative, and it's an excellent savings strategy.

Are co-ops a new development?
The co-op is by no means new, as the first one sprang up in Rochdale (near Manchester) in 1844.  Called the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, it was formed by a group of workers who clubbed together to stock a few staples in a storefront for sale to members, with the business to be owned by members of the society.  The Co-operative Group (usually referred to as The Co-op), which employs over 100,000 people, is descended from the Rochdale Society, and while the company is struggling with financial restructuring, the principles underlying co-op food sales are alive and well, embodied in many locally owned co-ops across the UK.  The co-op movement experienced a renaissance when natural foods became popular in the 1970s, and a number of modern co-ops date from that era.

Which co-ops are still open for business?
The recent recession was unusual in severity and duration, and although food sales normally don't suffer during an economic downturn, this event did slow down sales at many food co-operatives, including The Co-op.  However, the co-op model is very popular indeed, and new ventures are always being formed.  Here are hints on how to find co-ops, including some of the best-known survivors that are still offering food at low cost to members.

Handy maps and databases showing your choices are available on numerous sites.  The database created by Sustain hasn't been updated since December of 2012, so you'll need to double-check entries, but it contains a large number of listings.  There's a site just for Welsh co-ops, with about 300 suggestions.  If you're taken with the co-op concept but you can't find one nearby, it's easy to find instructions on starting your own group.  Many co-ops are very small offshoots of other community groups, held in schools, church halls, and other gathering places.

The Co-op, industry stalwart boasting a store in every postcode.  The traditional image of a co-op is a small local food shop focusing on healthy foods and regional produce, but The Co-op is a conglomerate, a group of co-operatives that covers lines of work including, but not limited to, food sales. Its food sales network covers the country, and its wide assortment of foods includes a premium range of more expensive products (Truly Irresistible), a budget-priced line (Simply Value), and a healthful selection (Good Life).  Profits are distributed to members twice each year in the form of points, and if you remain within The Co-op's network of service companies you can probably find everything you need to buy with that membership discount.

Fareshares, located in London  
Fareshares is loosely structured as a spontaneous group project, open for several hours on three days each week.  You'll bring your own bags, collect your own items, and tot up your bill, then give your money to the volunteers on duty that day.  Anyone can come in and buy, and in return you'll be expected to volunteer to help.  You can tidy up when you stop in to buy, or you can arrange to restock shelves or work a shift collecting money.  It's a great way to meet people, and the shop runs on the slenderest of margins, tacking on just enough in order to keep the lights on and the doors open.  As a result, your purchases will be cheap, and most of the stock is organic.

Ipswich Food Coop
 The Ipswich Food Coop also operates on a self-service model, but it's for members only.  The markup for full members is only 6%, and the market is open every other Saturday.  You'll need to bring your own containers, including bottles for liquids, with one exception:  brown bags for dry bulk items are supplied.  The market includes a fairtrade cafe which gives members a place to socialise after their shopping is done.

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