June 2006
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Above left, Home Grown Tomatoes Radio host Kenn Alan (left) questions Winston County Extension Agent Mike Henshaw during the live broadcast of the program from the Winston Farmers Co-op during the store’s 45th anniversary sale in April. Above right, customers enjoy free sausage biscuits and coffee at the sale. The Dean’s Country Sausage folks were on hand to serve breakfast.

Everything Changes, Everything Stays the Same


by Susie Sims

 
Winston Farmers Co-op Assistant Manager (left) Scott Collum and Manager Ken Loveless stand in the store’s new hunting and fishing department. The store hopes to soon have its federal firearms license.  
The more things change, the more they stay the same. That adage is an accurate description of the Winston Farmers Co-op in Haleyville.

A few years ago, the Co-op was at a crossroads. Many customers could no longer sustain their farms, so the customers went to work in town, so to speak, and changed their way of life.

They became part-time farmers, meaning they couldn’t or wouldn’t give up farming completely. These part-time farmers still have animals, grow hay, and usually garden on a large scale.

Many Co-ops in Alabama are facing the same challenge that Manager Ken Loveless faced in Winston County. The Co-op had to change its way of doing things, or be left behind.

He doesn’t think his Co-op has changed too much in its 45 years, mainly because it still meets the needs of the local customers, which is what Co-ops are designed to do.

 
  Mary Grace Sims enjoys a day at the Winston Farmers Co-op.
Loveless, who just began his fifth year as manager, made what some in the Co-op system called radical changes. "We had to make some changes—core changes—to the way we were doing things," said Loveless. "If we had not changed, we would have closed the doors two years ago."

These core changes included building a new 9,000 square foot showroom, handling new merchandise, and extending store hours.

Extended Hours Lead to More Sales

"I started out working in the fast-food industry," recalled Loveless. "One thing that was drilled in to my head was that we had to work when nobody else was working."

When customers get off from their regular jobs they work on their projects, take care of their animals, work in the yard or garden, he explained. Concerning store hours, Loveless took a wait-and-see approach. For four years he had some of the longest hours in the Co-op system.

A new way of running sales reports has recently allowed him to see exactly when the store was doing the most business and to adjust the hours accordingly. The store is now open Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., on Saturday from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and on Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.

Assistant Manager Scott Collum said that because of the information from the computer program the store was able to trim its hours and save on wages. He added that the store did not have to cut any employees.

Loveless said that because the store has so much walk-in traffic he has to keep a large number of employees. The store currently has six full-time and seven part-time employees, as well as one seasonal employee.

"The bottom line is that you have to be open in order to make sales," said Loveless. "The customers will get what they need somewhere, so why not here?"
Winston Farmers Co-op customers enjoy a large garden center. Winston Farmers Co-op Assistant Manager (left) Scott Collum explains the benefits of the Hustler line of zero-turning-radius mowers.
New Merchandise, New Sales

When it comes to merchandising, the Winston Co-op believes in variety. "We’re not a typical Co-op," said Loveless. "We don’t handle much fertilizer or seed. We had to find other areas to produce sales."

Loveless said that he and his staff looked at needs that were not being met in the area and capitalized on them. The Co-op features a pet store and pet grooming service, a hunting and fishing department with an indoor shooting lane that accommodates bows and air guns, and an extensive clothing and footwear section. Loveless said the Co-op is waiting to receive its federal firearms license.

"When we see a need locally, we try to fill it," he said.

The store also features a large garden center and carries Stihl equipment and Hustler turf equipment, which they service.

But what good is variety if you can’t see it? Showcasing that variety is where 9,000 square feet of showroom space comes in handy.

"We have feed in our showroom," said Loveless. "That is unusual, but it works so well for our walk-in customers."

Customers who only need a few bags of feed can get a shopping buggy or flat-bed cart and help themselves to what they need right in the showroom.

Get the Word Out

Another area that Loveless is sure has helped his Co-op remain competitive is local advertising.

"I plan ahead when it comes to advertising," he said. "I have an advertising budget and plan events well ahead of time."

Loveless advertises on the local radio and television stations and in the local newspaper. He said advertising helps get people in to the store on a regular basis as well as for special events.

Loveless tries to highlight different areas of the store with his advertising so potential customers will know what is available. In addition, he changes displays in the store to emphasize new and seasonal merchandise.

Special Events

During the year, the Winston Farmers Co-op hosts several special events to highlight certain products or to celebrate a landmark.

On April 22, the Co-op celebrated its 45th anniversary with a day-long sale.

"We had a big day," recalled Loveless. "Kenn Alan from the Home Grown Tomatoes Radio show was here, along with the folks from Dean’s Country Sausage."

The day’s events were highlighted with a drawing for a Hustler lawn mower. Grady Farris of Lynn won the Hustler Mini Fastrak.

A Good Crew

Loveless knows he couldn’t have been successful without his team of employees and his board of directors.

"Everybody does their own job," he said. "Employees work, the board directs, and I manage. That’s the way it should be."

Susie Sims is a freelance writer from Haleyville.