Urban cooperatives cut out the middleman

There’s a nice new surprise to be found in the northern Athenian suburb of Halandri, an unassuming ground-floor store that doesn’t really catch your eye, with the sign ELGI (Elliniki Gi, or Greek Earth) on the front. Open since December, this is the first urban consumer cooperative in Greece, started up in response to the rising cost of basic necessities. A word-of-mouth publicity campaign keeps attracting new members to the scheme, which now counts 230 people.

“Our prices are 40 percent or more below those on the market,” explains the vice president of the company’s board, Dimitris Kostakis, a lawyer. “The process for setting up the co-op took around four or five months. The way it works is that members purchase a cooperative share worth 20 euros and are then entitled – along with their immediate family – to buy goods here for the rest of their lives.”

Members who want out simply say so and get their 20-euro subscription fee back.

“Of course people are allowed to shop here a couple of times without being members, to test the concept, and if they are attracted to the idea, then they can join,” says Kostakis.

“The idea for the co-op came quite spontaneously,” Eleni Alexiou-Dimou, the president of the board and supply supervisor, tells Kathimerini. “I make my own bread and in early 2012 noticed the cost of raw materials and other ingredients had gone up. So some friends and I started looking for good-quality flour at a reasonable price.”

Her quest took her to Trikala in central Greece.

“There are a lot of mills in the area and we found a producer who was prepared to sell us flour at 0.65-0.70 cents a kilo, when the average retail price was 3 euros a kilo,” Alexiou-Dimou explains.

After the quest for flour, she went in search of good, cheap rice, and found that as well.

“Both products were sent to us in Athens in very large quantities, which we shared out between anyone who was interested. The producers also benefit because then a cut doesn’t have to go to the middlemen,” says Alexiou-Dimou.

“Our goal is to lend our support to producers of good-quality Greek products,” the head of ELGI says. “We pay for our purchases in advance, and in cash, and if everything goes well, we form an exclusive collaboration with the producer.”

A good example of the success of the scheme is the store’s pulses, which come from Kastoria.

“We get them from two producers who are brothers, and who were about to quit the business. But now, having ensured an outlet for the crops, they have stuck at it, and their products are excellent,” says Alexiou-Dimou.

The ELGI shop also stocks hygiene and paper products, detergents, desserts, pasta, tomato paste, dairy, frozen goods, etc.

“We can also bring fresh vegetables and fruit if we have advance orders,” explains Alexiou-Dimou.

Everyone who work in the store – which has nice, homely feel about it – does so on a voluntary basis. As pensioners, Alexiou-Dimou and cashier Dimitra Mavraki take on the lion’s share of the work.

“We open at 9 a.m. and work through the evening, taking a small break around lunchtime,” says Mavraki. “We have a good time here and have become friends with most of the neighbors.”

Earlier this month a similar store opened on the eastern coast of Attica at Nea Makri. Syn & Dimiourgia, as the cooperative is called, has 150 members.

“Our products are sold at prices that are from 30 to 150 percent cheaper than at retail stores,” Aris Kokkinis, the cooperative’s president, tells Kathimerini, explaining that it works with producers from around the area.

“With this initiative, among other objectives, we want to encourage the unemployed to turn to farming by ensuring an outlet for their products via the co-op,” says Kokkinos.

Kokkinos says that some customers are bit skeptical when they first come in, wondering if the products are good when they see the low prices. Others, however, embrace the scheme at once.

“We had a lady come in yesterday who left smiling after filling the trunk of her car with products, and spending just 46 euros,” Kokkinos says.

Similar cooperatives are currently also doing business in Sepolia and Argyroupoli, while a new shop is being planned for Zografou – all in Athens.

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