In searching for models of superior consumer performance across this land, I have come across two consumer cooperatives in Michigan. One deals with auto repair and the other with optical services. Both are nonprofit but are run on a “businesslike” basis to keep competent staff operating efficiently.
As many consumer-complaints about auto repair shops and the eyeglass industry indicate, these are not usually services which produce smiles of satisfaction from millions of consumers.
CONGRESSIONAL hearings have documented gross overcharging, work not done or done very negligently, and price fixing in the automotive repair business. Other inquiries have shown how competition is deliberately suppressed by the eyeglass industry, and how poor quality, deception and exorbitant pricing of optical services are widespread.
Co-op Auto in Ann Arbor, Mich. (2232 S. Industrial Highway) started in January 1973 to do things differently for its consumer members. It is a booming success, grossing about $10,000 a month, with 800 members paying $50 down and receiving lower membership rates.
Nonmembers, however, are provided equal service. The shop is on its way toward being a full-fledged cooperative with consumers owning and running their own business.
Four aspects of Co-op Auto show why its appeal and reputation for quality and fairness are so high. First is a strong emphasis on periodic preventive maintenance for autos. A file is opened on each car; patient explanation is the practice between consumers and the service staff.
CUSTOMERS are given a short evaluation card (with a prepaid envelope) to feed back their observations and experience with the work. The co-op conducts special surveys as well.
Second, Co-op Auto runs a full program of auto care classes taught by Co-op’s mechanics.
Third, there is a u-do-it program which provides tools and advice on the premises evenings and weekends for customers who wish to do their own work. This option not only saves money for consumers but also provides for a more intensive use of capital equipment on a modest payas-you-use basis.
Lastly, a self-development program for mechanics and a work environment that encourages initiative and innovation have led to efficiencies and cheerfulness rarely found at car repair stations.
Business manager David R. Friedrichs thinks such co-ops should be established all over the country. He would be pleased to respond to your letters.
CO-OP OPTICAL Services in Detroit (7408 Woodward Avenue) is an older and much larger institution. With seven offices in the metropolitan area and part of a larger cooperative system, it has 17 optometrists and 21 opticians and serves nearly 200,000 people per year with eye care from examinations to the prescribing and fitting of eyeglasses.
While providing quality service at lower prices, Coop Optical has been consistently in the black.
Because employees are salaried, there is no temptation to boost commissions by selling more expensive lenses or frames to customer or by cutting costs through low-quality materials.
All members of the parent co-op, Cooperative Services, Inc., are members of Co-op Optical Services. The vast majority of customers pay a one-time fee of S2 or are group-plan members associated with labor unions or other organizations with such plans.
A refraction examination by an optometrist costs S9, compared to $15 for examinations offered by a mass volume competitor. Similar economies prevail for eyeglasses.
AN AVERAGE group program costs $21 per year per employee, including the employee’s spouse and children under 19. For this amount, one examination is given every two years and, when needed, one pair of single-vision or bifocal glasses.
This co-op group service also is a consumer advocate. It fights repressive legislation that tries to further monopolistic barriers, provides information to Congress on marketing of inferior quality lenses and frames ail over the country, and has established its own optical aid fund for the very poor.
As America rediscovers the consumer cooperative form of private enterprise in the coming months and years it would do well to remember that these ideas of consumer protection and service only need more roots around the country to dramatically show the way to a higher standard of living.