Retail Co-operatives

Projects related to retail grocery co-operatives and impacts on their communities.

Retail Co-operative Research Projects

The Measuring the Co-operative Difference Research Network featured a number of researchers and projects looking at retail co-operatives, their operations, and the outcomes they generate for their communities. Below are summaries of these projects and their findings.

General Information on Retail Co-operatives

Retail co-operatives are a type of consumer co-operative: they are entirely owned by their member-customers, and exist to provide products and services to them.

Unless they are set up as non-profit co-ops, some amount of surplus revenues are often re-distributed to the members based on how much each member purchased from the co-op that year.  These payments are called patronage, and are just one of the benefits of membership in a retail co-operative.    (Source: British Colombia Co-operative Association)

A number of large networks of retail co-operatives operate across Canada, providing goods like groceries, hardware, and general merchandise to rural and remote communities which might otherwise have trouble accessing these goods.  Examples of co-operative networks include Federated Co-operatives Limited in Western Canada, Arctic Co-operatives in Northern Canada, and La Coop Fédérée in central Canada.

There are also independent retail co-operatives of all sizes providing affordable consumer goods to Canadians, from MEC – Canada’s largest co-operative by membership with over 3.8 million members – to dozens of small co-operatives focusing on local food products, and co-operatives specializing in retail services for Aboriginal communities, among others.

The Consumer Co-operative Sustainability and Planning Scorecard (Brown, Hicks, Leclerc)

The Consumer Co-operative Sustainability and Planning Scorecard (“Scorecard”) is a self-assessment and planning tool designed for retail co-operatives.  It measures sustainability, including social, economic and environmental performance, in relation to targets and priorities set by the co-operative’s key stakeholders. The tool was developed and tested by a team of researchers and pilot project co-operatives in Atlantic Canada.  More about the research team can be found here.

What does the Scorecard Do?

  • Helps co-operative boards to:
    • assess their performance on financial, social and environmental aspects of their operations
    • demonstrate transparency and accountability;
    • obtain information for strategic planning and continuous improvement;
    • compare their performance to the overall patterns for retail co-operatives in the Atlantic region.
  • Allows co-ops to choose their own priorities, and then helps them stay on track in meeting them, year-to-year;
  • Provides a survey to measure member satisfaction, to help engage member-owners in assessing and improving their co-operative;
  • Provides a survey to measure employee satisfaction, to help engage employees in assessing and improving their place of employment;
  • Helps co-operatives foster greater resilience, innovation and sustainability.

Here are examples of the areas the Scorecard can help co-operatives measure and assess:

Scorecard example graphic

What did the Researchers Find?

Even during this early phase of developing and  testing the tool, the Scorecard had positive impacts on the pilot co-operatives and the way they do business in their communities:

  • The pilot co-ops reported a positive impact on the level of engagement of Board members and management in the operations of their co-op, which led to:
    • increased clarity and transparency around the co-op’s activities;
    • Board members feeling encouraged to become more active decision makers;
    • stronger social cohesion among Board and management team.
  • As part of the process of developing and testing the tool, pilot co-ops reported becoming aware of new activities they could be engaging in, that had not previously been on their radar, such as:
    • focused strategic planning activities;
    • ensuring staff are better informed about the operations of the co-op.
  • Co-ops also became more aware of their identity as co-operatives and how this sets them aside from investor-owned companies (IOCs).

Click here to read a detailed overview of the Scorecard Project including more preliminary research results.

Click here to view various research outputs from the project, including slide presentations and papers.

Sustainability Reporting in the Retail Food Sector: A comparison of non-financial reporting by co-operatives and investor-owned corporations (Hicks, Brown)

This project (still underway in 2016) compares the publicly-available social responsibility reports of co-operatives with those of investor-owned companies in the retail food industry. The aim is to determine whether and to what extent non-financial reporting by co-operatives reveals consistent ‘co-operative differences’ in comparison with that of investor-owned companies.

Background on Sustainability Reporting
Sustainability reports, also known as social responsibility reports or triple bottom line reports, present information on the social, environmental, cultural, and economic impacts of an organization’s daily activities. Sustainability reports also provide information on the organization’s stated values, and demonstrate the link between its strategy and its commitment to a sustainable global economy.
(Source: Global Reporting Initiative)

While measuring and reporting on financial performance is commonplace for most organizations, non-financial measurement and reporting is a more recent phenomenon and not as widely adopted. Without any regulations around non-financial reporting, organizations are free to make their reporting reflect the focus, message and image the organization wishes to project.

Grounded in the ICA’s co-operative values and principles, co-operatives claim to be different from their investor-owned counterparts. “As businesses driven by values not just profit, co-operatives share internationally agreed principles and act together to build a better world through co-operation.” (ICA, 2012). As such, non-financial accounting and reporting is particularly relevant to co-operatives. Measuring and reporting on this “co-operative difference” can help co-operatives remain true to their values and principles, and be accountable to their members and other stakeholders.

Research Approach
The purposes of this research are two-fold:

  1. To learn what non-financial information is included in the publicly available annual and sustainability reports issued by retail food co-operatives.
  2. To explore whether, and in what ways non-financial reporting by co-operatives differs from reporting by comparable investor-owned corporations (IOCs).
    –   What are the published reasons given by co-ops and IOCs for reporting non-financial information?
    –   What measures and indicators are reported by co-ops and IOCs in publicly available reports?

Phase 1: Comparing Concern for Community
In the first phase of the project, the researchers look at one key principle of co-operation, “Concern for Community,” and the way this principle is measured on and reported on by co-operatives and IOCs in the retail food industry.
The researchers studied the publicly available reports of 16 retail food co-operatives and 13 investor-owned corporations using a content analysis approach.

Based on a preliminary analysis, the research team found that:

  • A greater percentage of co-operatives reported measures and indicators on the themes of Donations, Local Development, International Development, and Social Inclusion;
  • A greater percentage of investor-owned corporations reported measures and indicators on the theme of Education.
  • Co-operatives reported on average more measures and indicators than investor-owned corporations for all themes, indicating more depth in the non-financial reporting by co-operatives and therefore possibly greater accountability and transparency.
  • Co-operatives and investor-owned corporations used similar language in their reports. The use of similar language may suggest increasing isomorphism; that is, co-operative and investor-owned corporations may be becoming increasingly similar to one another.

Next Steps

The researchers will be looking more closely at the context of these measures and indicators to gain a better understanding of any differences in reporting on “Concern for Community”.
Examples of questions to explore:

  • How do the organizations describe their relationships with community?
  • What types of organizations or causes do they donate to?
  • What types of local and international development projects to they support?
  • In what ways do they support education and social inclusion?

To read a more detailed summary of the above research, including more plans for the future, click here.

For a selection of presentations relating to this project, you can visit the project page on our web archive.

Other Research on Retail Co-operatives in Canada

Do you know of any other recent research on the impact of co-operatives on the retail sector in Canada?

If so, we invite you to share it with us by submitting it to our Social Economy Space research archive using this form.

We also invite you to explore recent research and connect with co-op researchers on the Canadian Co-operative Research Network site.


Elizabeth Hicks

Elizabeth Hicks

Associate Professor, Accounting & Finance, Mount Saint Vincent University

University bio.

André Leclerc

André Leclerc

Professor, Economics, Université de Moncton


Dr. Leslie Brown

Dr. Leslie Brown

Professor, Sociology & Anthropology, Mount Saint Vincent University

University bio.

Bonnie Petersen

Bonnie Petersen

Graduate Student, Education, Mount Saint Vincent University


Launa Gauthier

Launa Gauthier

Educational Developer Associate - Queen’s Centre for Teaching and Learning

University bio.