Marketing the Market

Proposed co-op grocery Clifton Market is gaining steam after the purchase of former Keller’s IGA building

click to enlarge The former Keller’s IGA building in Clifton hosted a grocery store from 1939 to 2011. Local group Clifton Market recently bought the building and seeks to reopen it as a co-op.
The former Keller’s IGA building in Clifton hosted a grocery store from 1939 to 2011. Local group Clifton Market recently bought the building and seeks to reopen it as a co-op.

For more than 70 years, residents in Clifton enjoyed what has become an increasing rarity in urban neighborhoods: a full-scale neighborhood grocery store. That grocery closed four years ago, but a community group has recently made big strides in bringing it back. What’s more, their business plan envisions a cutting-edge shopping experience in a store owned and controlled by the people who shop there.

A group called Clifton Market has been working for more than a year to reopen the 22,000-square-foot Keller’s IGA building as a consumer-owned cooperative grocery. Last month, with the help of the nearly $1 million the group raised in part by selling 1,000 shares to community members, Clifton Market purchased the property.

The Market’s plan to form a cooperative has met with a mix of strong support and some skepticism. But board member Rama Kasturi says she’s optimistic the group’s hard work and careful planning will win over doubters.

“We worked very, very hard and suffered through the rumor mill,” says Kasturi, a Clifton resident and biochemist by trade. “We’re happy that we’re able to close the conversation on whether or not there will be a market. There will be a market, it’s just a question of how soon we can get it open.”

The group has enlisted help that could prove instrumental in getting to that next step.

Keith Wicks, a 30-year veteran of the grocery industry who runs a business consultancy based in Minnesota, has provided market research as the store gears up. He sees more than 15,000 people a week coming to the store once it is up and running. He’s been working with the Market for a year and is now helping drill down on the details of the business plan.

“The basis of this market is a wonderful opportunity,” Wicks says. “This store has a great chance of coming out with the type of performance that works right from the get-go. The next step is to roll up our sleeves and get it done right.”

The plan includes offering shoppers what the market organizers call an “uptrend” experience — lots of organic food, local produce, meats and other items, a large beer and wine selection, a beer cave, and potential amenities like a juice bar and coffee shop where shoppers can hang out. It also includes some cutting-edge marketing. Clifton Market has partnered with Blue Ash technology firm Ascendum to provide digital signage and other elements designed to enhance the shopping experience.

At a May 6 event celebrating purchase of the building, Ascendum Chief Technology Officer Richard Schramm gave demos of the store’s potential setup to the 100 or so who gathered in the cavernous Keller’s building.
Digital signage at the store will tailor displays to individual customers via a smartphone app that communicates with sensors and computers in the store to bring up ads relevant to each customer.

Customers can opt to link up their Facebook pages and answer questions about preferences when they register. The technology can also show customers specials based on previous purchases. Touch-activated wall displays will also show specials and video tutorials on nutrition and cooking techniques.

“It’s great how technology has evolved,” Schramm said. “This is all brand-new stuff we’ve just brought to market. Digital signage has been around for a while, but never has it actually adapted to the people around it.”

These and other technological pieces will provide the store an edge, or at least a reason for shoppers to come take a look, Kasturi says.

“It’s a marriage made in heaven. Kroger doesn’t have anything like this. As soon as I saw the kiosks, I was sold.”

Lots of local offerings and new tech are part of the business plan, but at the heart of the Clifton Market effort is the idea of community ownership. That’s important, founders say, for the tight-knit community that had grown accustomed to having its own locally owned grocery. A grocery store has been at the Keller’s location since 1939, forming a core for the neighborhood’s business district.

“My baby food came from here,” says board member Marilyn Hyland. “My childrens’ baby food came from here, and now my grandson’s baby food will come from here.”

The Clifton Market board is working to make sure the store fits into the community, both culturally and aesthetically. The market has already hosted a couple events, including a TED talk screening and an e-waste recycling event. The group is working with local architects, including Esquire Theater designer Paul Muller, to revamp the building’s façade in a way that fits in with the rest of the neighborhood.

“I like to look at it as a market of the people, by the people, for the people,” says Kasturi, who also has a seat in Clifton Town Meeting, the neighborhood’s community council. “So help me Clifton,” she says, laughing.

Ownership in Clifton Market is open to anyone who buys a $200 share. Shareholders elect the store’s board, which makes day-to-day business decisions and more strategic choices. For some major decisions about the market, shareholders will also have a direct vote, says board member Hyland. In addition, she says, employees at the market will be given a share after completing six months of employment. Shareholders would receive some form of dividend as the store becomes profitable.

It’s an uncommon model for Cincinnati, but food cooperatives have existed elsewhere for years. The first in the U.S. were founded in the mid-1800s, and the model has experienced ups and downs in popularity since then. A large surge in cooperative grocers and other businesses came during the economic difficulties of the 1930s, and another big spike in popularity came in the 1970s.

Co-ops have seen a big revival in interest in the last decade as well, specifically as an alternative to big-box chain stores like Walmart. Unlike chains, supporters say, co-ops keep their profits in the community and allow for local input.

The grocery industry is a tough business, especially for co-ops. But while some have come and gone, others have thrived.

A 2008 study by the University of Wisconsin found that the estimated 290 consumer-owned grocery cooperatives around the U.S. accounted for more than $2 billion in sales revenue and $252 million in wages and benefits paid to workers the previous year. Many of the most successful of those coops are found in university towns like Austin, Texas. Austin’s Wheatsville co-op has been in business since 1976 and counts 17,000 consumer-owners, including employees, and $24 million in annual revenues.

Other cooperatively owned businesses have been proposed or started in Cincinnati in recent years. Organizers are working to get Apple Street Market off the ground in Northside, and the Cincinnati Union Cooperative Initiative, which is dedicated to worker-owned businesses, has started several ventures around the city related to food production and other pursuits.

Supporters of Clifton Market say its populist business model and emphasis on public space could draw a large number of shoppers from the neighborhood and beyond.

“I really like the idea of the public area,” says Laura Barkley of Westwood, who attended the May 6 event. “It’s going to be really fun to hang out here. It’ll be really cool to have that change of pace. Less of a corporate grocery store and more of a co-op.”

In the meantime, the Market’s organizers have a big job ahead when it comes to raising the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to build out and stock the store. But they’ve got some help.

The Market is currently negotiating with co-op banks, including the National Cooperative Bank and North Country Development Fund, for further financing. The group says that could take a month or two, but that they’ve gotten good feedback so far. Laurel Grocers, the Market’s wholesale provider, will also be supplying $400,000 worth of inventory and $200,000 in cash as a loan to the business.

Help could also come from the city. Vice Mayor David Mann has asked the city to look into providing a $550,000 loan to the market. So far, Councilman Wendell Young has signed on in support for that motion.

If funding comes soon, construction could start as early as July and will take around six months. Co-op organizers say the market could be open by the end of the year or early next year, depending on how quickly the rest of the funding needed comes together. ©

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