ST. ANTHONY, NL - The St. Anthony Grenfell Co-Op is closing its doors after 105 years of servicing the region.
At a special meeting at the St. Anthony Lions Club on Jan. 23, the Grenfell Co-Op membership passed a motion to begin the process of closing down their store.
John Budgell, president of the board of directors, gave his opening remarks to the over-200 Co-Op members in attendance, stating this was not the finest hour in the store’s history.
"It is with great regret and sadness that after 105 years in business I am coming to the members of Grenfell Memorial Co-Op to ask for a resolution to close our member store," said Budgell.
“Unfortunately, the only solution we can offer here tonight is this solution.”
With seating going to the very back of the room and many others standing along the walls, there was a visible sadness as Budgell detailed the declining sales, low member interest and other growing issues that have plagued the Grenfell Co-Op for the past few years.
The call for the closure was particularly saddening in that St. Anthony’s Grenfell Memorial Co-Op was the only Co-Op started by Dr. Wilfred Grenfell that remains in use. The announcement meant another loss to Grenfell’s legacy in the area.
Each annual meeting for the past few years has detailed a rapid decline in revenue for the Co-Op. As outlined in Budgell’s speech, the total sales in 2015-2016 brought a $816,733 decline from the previous fiscal year, and an additional $178,869 decline was noted in 2016-2017. Budgell says based off their current losses, the store is projected to lose an additional $276,925 in sales for their next fiscal year of 2017-2018.
“That means that by the end of the current fiscal year, your store will have seen a net loss of a staggering $1.4 million in the last four years,” Budgell said.
The Grenfell Memorial Co-Op has made several attempts to bring success back to the store but to no avail. These included offering lower food prices, varied promotions and reduced operational costs.
“And yet we find ourselves at this point in our history,” Budgell said, who has not yet served his first full year as president.
“We were hoping things would materialize, but a lot of things we were planning to do got delayed far too long to benefit us.”
Other issues have also contributed to the decision for closure, including repairs needed to their freezers and core systems that would cost around $20,000. As well, staff restructuring at TRA Atlantic, who own the chain, delayed many projects the Co-Op had hoped would benefit business.
Because of these issues, payment of bills and payment to staff became a goal increasingly difficult for the store to reach.
Member Judy Ward spoke before the board members and said that while the news is sad, the warning signs have been there for some time. Ward said the lack of support from members is where the responsibility in the closure ultimately lays.
“We’ve known for a number of years this was going to happen if sales didn’t pick up, so it’s no good to lament about it now – it’s too late,” said Ward. “So really and truly, and I don’t want to be cruel about it, but it’s the members and the member only that are at fault.”
With their major competitor Foodland situated in the convenient location of St. Anthony’s Viking Mall, Co-Op struggled to keep its customer base even with lower prices.
Manager Boyd Manuel brought out a list of compared prices that a customer had done up to test out the Co-Op’s claim that it had the lowest prices in the area. Manuel detailed some of the items listed and showed that there was overall saving in price when shopping at the Co-Op.
“When [the customer who had made the list] came back and went through it, he was shocked,” said Manuel. “Because he always thought it was reversed.”
Manuel thanked the members that do continually shop at the Co-Op, but expressed that it has just not been enough to keep the store in operation.
‘Delaying the inevitable’
Budgell read the motion to begin the process of closing down the store twice to the attendants before asking someone to move and second the motion.
After a delayed silence, vice president Boyd Noel moved the motion, though he was visibly saddened and reluctant to do so. Judy Ward proceeded to second the motion.
As the movement was passed a voice from the crowd asked if there’s really no way to bring the store back.
“I think we’ve delayed the inevitable as long as we possibly can,” Budgell responded. “We gave it our best. We can’t force people kicking and screaming to shop at the Co-Op, and unfortunately that’s what was needed.”
The staff’s dedication
Noel stepped to the podium and expressed his gratitude to the staff for their dedication through the years.
“Most of all what tears me up is that our staff is going out the door,” said Noel. “We have 17 employees and for the last month or so they’ve been coming to work unsure if they were going to get a paycheque or not. So, kudos to our staff.”
Manuel also spoke about the employees’ loyalty, saying during these trying times the staff went three weeks without a paycheque. The membership applauded the staff afterward.
“If we were in turn as loyal to the store as they were, we wouldn’t be here tonight,” Manuel said.
Some in attendance expressed fear that now that St. Anthony’s Foodland is without a competitor, the store will have free range on raising prices.
In the time leading up to the decision to close, Manuel says several stores were contacted to buy the chain, including Colemans, Loblaws and Atlantic Grocery. While Coleman’s did come to St. Anthony for an initial meeting, none of their efforts were successful.
Manuel expects that another grocery store will not take over the building.
The Co-Op will remain open indefinitely, as the board of directors are now going to work out the details on how the store’s closure will go ahead. As the meeting adjourned, Budgell and Manuel conveyed their appreciation to the dedication and hard work of the store’s loyal members and the many different board of directors who have helped keep the store in operation for over a century.
“There was no one on the board who didn’t have the Grenfell Co-Op in their best interests,” Manuel said.
Correction: The original version of this article stated the meeting was an "annual general meeting". It was a "special meeting".