Carol-Wabush Co-op Society Ltd.: A Full-service Grocer Offering Member Benefits

Carol-Wabush Co-op Society Ltd. (CWC) is a growing cooperative in Labrador City, Labrador. The co-op has been in business since 1968, originating as a small group working for quality food availability in the region. Carson Gibson, local council chairman, has been with the co-op since 1971, when the operation first established itself in a physical space.

“We had a building started, but in the meantime, our members were still buying things from a trailer, mostly fresh produce and turkeys,” Gibson explains. “We got the store up and running because at the time there was only one grocer in town and the prices were going up.”

Since the early days, the operation has made some changes. Intrinsically, however, the team’s mission remains the same today. “Around 1992 we expanded, and right after the Iron Ore Company of Canada announced a reduction in staff and downsized the mine due to prices dropping,” Gibson elaborates. “We went bankrupt in 2000, but Co-Op Atlantic came in and bought us out. We’ve since been able to establish ourselves in the Labrador Mall.”

Co-op Benefits

Cooperatives operate very differently from other grocery businesses, although Gibson notes that the store is open to everyone, not just members. “We have a solid membership base,” he explains. “Our members have a say in the operation, as opposed to a corporate board making decisions. Everything operational has to be okayed by the membership. Other than that, it’s like a conventional grocery store. It’s not only for members. Anyone can shop here. We also have a grocery pickup. This is the only business like ours in the area.” The team operates only one location, although Co-Op Atlantic runs several stores around eastern Canada.

CWC memberships hold several benefits outside of having a say in the co-op’s operation. “We have a rebate payback,” Gibson explains. “Any given year, if our members spend over a certain dollar amount they can get back up to $500. This has replaced the surplus dividend system we had previously. We also have a 50/50 draw program that we use in the store, whereby a member pays $2 every week and the drawing is on Mondays. If the member’s number is drawn who shopped that week, they get the pot. One winner got almost $20,000 so far. The other side of that goes to youth groups that need funds for establishment.”

Continued Growth

Membership for CWC is on the rise, but Gibson notes that the co-op’s growth has not come without challenges. According to Gibson, Canada is currently a mixed bag as far as the economy goes, varying by province. “Every province has its own problems,” he explains. “Some are doing well; Alberta is on the edge of oil. British Columbia is not as healthy as Alberta. Locally, there is a possibility that the oil price may drop soon and we’ll start seeing more layoffs. Historically, every 10 years there is a boom and a bust. It’s been about 15 years since the last one. We’re seeing less growth right now, but it will pick up. China wants the iron and oil. Another mine opened up four years ago and a fifth mine is in the exploration stages, but the price of oil has dropped.”

On the local front, Gibson and his team face additional challenges. “The major issue is staffing right now,” says Gibson. “We could do better with more staff, but it’s hard to find people. Other operations and industries are offering better opportunities and high wages.”

As a co-op, it is important for CWC to be able to control prices, which is not an easy task considering overhead. “Our biggest expense is freight,” Gibson elaborates. “We pay shipment from Moncton to Labrador City, and it can be quite expensive. We have to make sure each load is packed to capacity. This limits the amount of product we can bring in.”

According to Gibson, there is also some new competition in the neighborhood. “In 2007, IGA opened up a new store about a kilometer from us,” he explains. “After it was built, people started going to that outlet. We’ve been suffering ever since.”

All hope is not lost, however, and the CWC team is proactive about maintaining a solid customer base. “We’re trying to make changes,” Gibson continues. “The CEO and vice president of retail and marketing from Co-op Atlantic came in this past Monday and promised to bring us up to speed so we can make more sales with the IGA so close. They are making about three times what we are in sales.”

The entire team is kicking it into high gear with new incentives to draw business back from the big-box grocer. Despite a visual overhaul in 2011, CWC is making some updates to the tried and true co-op.

“We are modernizing the store to include fresher, more quality produce and better displays,” Gibson explains. “We have a lot of space in the store and we are trying to condense it to make it more attractive for customers to shop here. We’re also looking at including ready, prepared meals. Many young people would like to come and pick up a complete meal and go warm it up in the microwave. We are focusing more on that demographic.”

Despite the challenges, the co-op maintains a genuine dedication to members, as well as shared ownership, ensuring that members and employees alike are deeply invested in the operation’s success. As long as people are looking for fresh, quality food, Carol-Wabush Co-op Society Ltd. will continue to offer goods and food at fair prices, with the added benefits of membership.