The Natural Employer

"It's much like becoming a parent. No one can prepare you for what it's going to be like to have this child 24 hours a day."

That's how Kenna Eaton describes her experience with an expansion at the natural foods store she manages. On New Year's Day 1999, Moscow Food Co-op in Moscow, Idaho, moved into its new 5,500-square-foot retail location from the old 1,800-square-foot space. With the move, the staff more than doubled from fewer than 20 people to 40 people.

In many aspects the expansion was a rousing success. In a mere four months, the co-op signed a lease, carried out renovations, raised the money and moved; all on time and under budget. However, Eaton says, "We underestimated the effect on the people on the front lines. The managers tended to be more psychologically prepared. They accepted that when things came up unexpectedly, that was just part of the process."

Not so for the nonmanagement staff. When customers asked questions they couldn't answer, when supplies couldn't be located, when things weren't in their expected places, employees felt disempowered and angry. "The old channels didn't work any more—how things got done and who you talked to," Eaton says.

At the same time, Nature's Oasis in Durango, Colo., was going through a similar experience. The store took over the space next door, doubling its retail square footage to 7,000 and doubling its staff to 50. Former General Manager Adrienne Aronson also learned "systems that work well in a small store don't carry over to a larger one." One area that broke down was job definition. "The jobs got bigger, and we were expecting more of people than they could be held accountable for," she says.

Customer expectations grow more exacting. "When you're a little mom-and-pop store, people don't judge you the same way" as when you get bigger, Aronson notes.

Staff experiences in both stores are not unusual, according to Bill Gessner of Cooperative Development Services, Madison, Wis., a consultant specializing in expansion/relocation projects. Employees become more tired from covering more physical space, systems break down and customer service suffers. Staff who aren't accustomed to the additional responsibility tend to fall back on the "I'm just a worker" attitude and refuse to take ownership. The most common systems that fall apart in expansions, says Gessner, are financial reporting and front-end operations.

Eaton, Aronson and Gessner have advice for managers undergoing expansions. They all emphasize the importance of planning ahead and keeping in close touch with employees.

Staff tend to fall back on the "I'm just a worker" attitude ...
"Talk with the staff about what to expect in the first few months," Eaton says. "Admit there will be unexpected changes, and explain how you'll deal with them as they arise." Eaton suggests putting together a team with people from each department to address operational system breakdowns. He also recommends holding regular staff meetings, facilitated by an outside professional, to clear up problems. She advises managers to focus not only on problems but also to celebrate successes.

Aronson stresses the value of frequent staff meetings. "Ask for feedback on how systems are working," she says. "When you hire people, warn them that you're still in transition, you're still learning the systems and you value their opinions." Aronson says training staff in all areas of the store is important. "In a small store everyone is a generalist," she says, "while in a larger store with more staff, people tend to specialize. But customers, especially new customers, new to natural foods, need the staff to be able to answer their questions." In addition, she advises any store getting a new POS system to make sure the vendor provides thorough training, even if it means paying extra.

Gessner suggests prioritizing financial and front-end functions, making sure they are adequately staffed. Moreover, management needs to model good self-care. If managers work 80 hours a week and present themselves as suffering martyrs or burn themselves out, he warns, staff morale will suffer. "Managers need to put time into delegation, coaching and praising, rather than just putting out fires. They need to make themselves visible to staff and fulfill their symbolic roles as leaders."

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 3/p. 74