In the late 1980s, Parkway Co-op—a successful retail business dating back to 1945—nearly folded after incurring significant debt at high interest rates.
“Some of our locations closed, and our sales fell from $7.9 million in 1980 to $7.3 million in 1987,” says general manager Mike Nord. “But being controlled locally allowed us to make quick changes that bigger corporations cannot, and we learned from our lessons.”
The major challenge came from the rising competition of big-box retailers. “The world [was] changing so fast with the advent of big-box retailers,” Nord says. “It’s important for us to be innovative.”
To combat such adversity, Parkway Co-op renewed its focus on fiscal responsibility, which was part of its ethos from its founding in 1945, when a group of farmers in Roblin, Manitoba, met to discuss how they could service the community’s needs effectively and responsibly.
Those needs are, in part, determined by Parkway Co-op’s location in the Parkland region of western Manitoba. Although the population the co-op serves only totals 75,000, that number increases significantly in the summer, when tourism to the bordering Mountain National Park and Duck Mountain Provincial Park increases.
Today, Parkway Co-op derives 50 percent of sales from food and the other 50 percent from agricultural products—including petroleum storage and delivery. With three locations, in Roblin, Rossburn, and Grandview, Parkway Co-op is owned by community members who elect a seven-member board of directors, which in turn creates policies and hires a general manager.
The benefit of this structure, according to board president Muriel Lowe, is that profits are kept in the community. “As a co-op, Parkway is owned by the people it serves—ordinary local people who shop here,” she says. “All earnings are invested in the co-op or returned to members.”
One way the co-op ensures this is with responsible investment.
“We reinvested in our buildings and updated our equipment—but [we] made sure that when we did so, we had the money we needed,” Nord says. “We didn’t want to repeat the debt crisis of the 1980s.”
Parkway Co-op also focuses on technology. The co-op is currently updating its website and has recently started using Facebook and Twitter to communicate local marketing efforts, such as its “Chop Happy” promotion, in which grocery customers receive a sticker redeemable for a free set of Thomas knives.
While responsible investment and technology are important, Parkway Co-op’s greatest competitive advantage is its service. “Comparing us to big-box retailers is like comparing apples to oranges,” Nord says. “Even though we provide a lot of the same products, we have a lot of services large stores don’t. We have on-site bakers and meatcutters making fresh products every day, we supply bags, and we offer carryout and delivery services.”
To that end, Parkway Co-op’s greatest asset is its staff. “Customers can count on getting the best service possible because it’s part of our culture—given that our employees are member customers who care about the community in which they live,” Nord says. “In the end, a smile and a friendly face go a long way toward helping us distinguish ourselves from big-box retailers.”