Local Self-Reliance: Store Cooperative Owners in Philadelphia

The institute for Local Self-Reliance works to help urban residents gain greater control over their lives through the use of low-technology, decentralist tools and concepts. This issue shares information on store cooperative owners in Philadelphia.

| September/October 1982

Philadelphia is the scene of another kind of revolution instigated by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance helping store cooperative owners in Philadelphia. 

The institute for Local Self-Reliance works to help urban residents gain greater control over their lives through the use of low-technology, decentralist tools and concepts. Because we believe that city dwellers and country folks alike can profit from the institute's admirable efforts, we've made this "what's happening where" report by the ILSR staffers one of MOTHER's regular features. If you would like to know more, you can have a free catalog of ILSR's selection of books and pamphlets by sending the institute a self-addressed, stamped envelope . . . or become an associate member for a tax-deductible $35 per year ($50 for institutions) and receive both a periodic report on the institute's work and a 20% discount on all the group's publications. Write to ILSR, Dept. TMEN, Washington, D. C.  

Philadelphia, called the cradle of liberty for its role in America's fight for independence, is today the scene of another kind of revolution: In dozens of that city's chain grocery stores, checkout clerks and other "ordinary" employees are becoming store cooperative owners in Philadelphia. And ironically enough, the parent of this experiment in worker ownership is none other than A & P . . . the company that pioneered the concept of the modern, corporation-controlled supermarket back in 1912.

The chain's halcyon days were limited, however. In 1969 A & P was still number one in domestic sales among all retail food outlets, but the firm — now an "old timer" — had grown fat and sloppy with success. Soon, hungry new competitors — such as Safeway and Kroger — overtook the giant . . . and by 1975 A & P had fallen to fourth place.

It wasn't long before large corporate losses began to pile up, so — in an attempt to stop them — A & P began to close many of its stores . . . and between 1974 and early 1982 it reduced the number of its locations from 3,468 to 1,055. However, each time the company shut down an outlet, it was forced to lay off first those people who had worked the shortest time, who — generally speaking — were the younger and lowest-paid employees . . . and to retain those with seniority and, usually, larger paychecks.

As a result, the firm's actual per-worker labor costs remained extraordinarily high (the industry norm for annual wages is just under 10% of total revenue, while A & P was paying 15%). Furthermore, the reduction in employees led to poorer customer service . . ..and the corporation found itself in a vicious downward spiral caused by low sales and high overhead, which — today — continues to seriously threaten the future of the once-great chain. A ray of hope, however, has begun to shine in the Philadelphia region.

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