Willy Street Co-op’s business model paying dividends for community during difficult time

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Michael R. Conway

The Willy Street Co-op has made pandemic-related adjustments with community members in mind.

If you have lived in Madison for any substantial period of time, you have likely wandered among the produce-lined and organically-stuffed aisles of Willy Street Co-op. With three locations across Madison, the customer-owned grocery store has been filling the carts (and bellies) of locals since 1974. 

Three-plus generations of success unfortunately don’t protect businesses like the co-op against a global pandemic, though. The upside of having ownership split among 35,000 individuals in this time, however, is reactivity. 

“Because we are owned by people right here in our community, it plays an important role in our decision making process,” said Communications Director Brendon Smith. “We can be responsive to community needs in a way that chain stores cannot.”

Normally, this translates through donations to local nonprofits and a slew of civic engagement programming, but now rather takes the form of adjusting their operations to better serve those who need it most right now. 

By limiting their open hours to 10am through 8pm, the first of which is specifically designated for older folks or those with compromised immune systems, the Willy Street Co-op staff has set aside more time to stock, clean and sanitize their product. 

“We have instituted limits on the number of customers in the store at any one time, installed plexiglass to help protect cashiers, marked lines on the floor to promote social distancing, closed our service cases and began pre-packing all meat, deli, and bulk, among other changes,” Smith said. “We have also expanded our Access Discount for Owners with low income from 10 percent to 20 percent for the duration of Wisconsin’s Safer-At-Home order, which will support those who may have limited cash or credit at this time with being able to buy more groceries at once as part of their ability to practice social distancing.” 

The co-op also has added more and more pick-up and delivery slots to their online shopping service, and is continuously looking at additional ways to serve the community. 

“We expect to see more interest in our online shopping service than in the past, and we will have to be watchful for how other shopping habits change so that we can respond,” Smith said. “It hasn’t been easy, but we are also grateful to be able to provide and contribute what we can to our neighbors during this difficult time.”

These actions speak to the co-op staff’s inherent values of wellbeing and sustainability — not only in their products, but in regard to their business structure and a dedication to their community as well. 

“Our staff have been truly amazing. They not only continue to come to work at a difficult time, they have adapted quickly to many changes,” Smith said. “A group of directors and the general manager have met virtually almost daily to discuss how best to respond to the situation and best meet the needs of our customers...Two-way communication is the key to keeping this all going.” 

But in order for the Willy Street Co-op stores to remain open and safe, customers must also step up and refine their own practices while shopping to help minimize the risk to staff amid their other concerns for the store. 

“We’ve [also] navigated some pretty drastic changes in shopping habits, public health recommendations, some of the highest inventory turnover rates we have ever seen, and just the mixed feelings of stress and fear throughout our community,” Smith said. “[So] it can be stressful for staff members, particularly when customers don’t remain six feet away. We continue to ask our customers to be mindful of others, to only touch products they intend to buy, and to not use cash if they are able.” 

With the adoption of best practices, Madisonians can not only protect themselves, but the hardworking individuals who are still showing up to their places of employment each day to ensure we get the supplies and snacks we need to get through this crisis, together. 

“Co-op customers have repeatedly thanked staff for their dedication and helpfulness, and we share that love with our staff,” Smith said. 

To learn more about how the Willy Street Co-op continues to adhere to public health advisories, refer to their website

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