The Co-Op Country Store
The Co-Op Country Store traces its roots back to 1934 when 60 Bonner County, Idaho, residents banded together to form Grange Gas & Supply in Sandpoint, Idaho. Originally focused on providing fuel, grease and hardware to area farmers, the co-op opened up to the larger community in 1936 in a bid to drive growth.
“Like all cooperatives, it was designed to unite farmers to get better pricing, but we just kept growing and adding on pieces over time and merged with a co-op from the county north of us in the 1960s,” says Ray Delay, general manager of The Co-Op Country Store.
At that time, products and services included the sale of dynamite for use in blasting rocks and stumps out of fields as well as a grain elevator that operated until 1997. “We continued to grow until 1990 when we learned that all our underground tanks needed to be replaced, so we decided to relocate to our current location in Ponderay, Idaho, because we thought the interruption to business would be too hard to overcome,” says Delay.
Today, The Co-Op Country is a true one-stop shop for farmers and nearby residents alike, serving customers across northern Idaho, western Montana and eastern Washington with the quality products and superior customer service they’ve come to expect. The cooperative’s single, 19,000-plus-square-foot Ponderay location employs 34 people and logs $9 million in annual revenue.
In addition to offering a full slate of the fuel and hardware products that got the cooperative where it is today, The Co-Op Country Store offers home propane delivery and 20 distinct departments.
These departments range from farm supplies, housewares, pet and livestock food, supplements and pharmaceuticals to heating, welding, plumbing, electrical and beekeeping equipment, clothing, and yard and garden supplies. “We sell everything that you would need around your house and farm,” says Delay.
A trusted information source
A fixture in the community for over 80 years, The Co-Op Country Store has leveraged its reputation into a bimonthly newsletter that serves as both a valuable source of industry information and a marketing tool.
“We revived an old practice that the co-op did at the beginning and started sending out a newsletter for our members. It’s mailed free to residents of two counties and is our main way of communicating with the public right now,” says Delay, whose grandfather was one of the original co-op members, investing $10 back in 1934.
Like many cooperatives, The Co-Op Country Store operates on the Rochdale Principles. Established by the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers in 1884, the system sets organization standards for cooperatives that include an emphasis on voluntary and open membership, democratic member control, member economic participation, autonomy, education, training and information, cooperation and concern for the larger community.
The Co-Op Country Store has used this framework to its benefit over the years, soliciting opinions from across its membership base as a means of staying in touch with the needs of today’s farmers and community members.
“We provide quality service, unique products and really understand living in northern Idaho,” Delay says. “The experience of our selling staff and customer service is king here.”
Identifying unique items
Unique product offerings have long set The Co-Op Country Store apart from the competition. As an affiliate member of both Ace Hardware and United Hardware, the cooperative is able to choose from a wide range of products, ensuring both selection and competitive pricing.
“We really focus on uniqueness because at the big box stores everyone has the same tool lines and brands, so we try to offer something the others don’t have,” Delay notes.
He points to one top-selling product as a prime example of the cooperative’s ability to find unique products that resonate with its customer base. “We found this little bag of silage made in Texas that’s unique to us in this community. That’s now grown over the last year from zero sales to over $1,000 a month,” Delay says.
This focus on unique products, as well as a longstanding commitment to quality and customer service, has allowed The Co-Op Country Store to survive what is all-too-often the death knell for smaller, local cooperatives: the arrival of big box retailers and larger regional chains. “We’ve overcome several of them, actually, and we continue to thrive in spite of all the competition,” he says.
The Co-Op Country Store celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2014, holding a 1930s-themed party that harkened back to the decade when the cooperative was founded. “The staff put on 1930s attire and put on a skit associated with a local radio program. Everyone had a lot of fun,” recalls Delay.
For his part, Delay enjoys coming to work every day at the cooperative that his grandfather helped start more than 80 years ago. In their spare time, Delay and his brother still head down to their grandfather’s farm, performing maintenance on the historic homestead. “I love the feeling of working the land my grandfather worked and running the co-op that he was an original member of,” Delay says.
A strong reputation in the community, a unique slate of product offerings and a commitment to staying in touch with the needs of its community and customers will ensure that The Co-Op Country Store remains a leader in the northern Idaho market.