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Competitive Rates, Still a Poor Reputation

By Sarah J. Schaffer

The Harvard Cooperative Society (the Coop) has been a fixture at Harvard for as long as anyone can remember.

Students still shop there for books and school supplies, and alumni return for Harvard sweatshirts and shot glasses.

But the Coop's image is far from positive in the eyes of Harvard students. Students say prices are too high, selection isn't good enough and membership doesn't pay.

In the past few years, profits have dropped sharply, causing the Coop to eliminate its once-substantial rebate. Last year was the first time in institutional memory the Coop operated at a loss.

Some say retailing has grown too competitive and specialized for a multi-purpose department store like the Coop to stay in business.

Others, such as those on the board of directors, say the Coo simply needs to reevaluate its goals and purpose in order to remain viable in the twenty-first century.

A Negative Image

"The Coop is just one big gimmick, and they can't make up their minds what gimmick they want to be," Elisabeth L. Ritter '97 said earlier this semester.

At the same time, Sarah E. Jackson '98 questioned the Coop's commitment to its student members.

"Books are really expensive and I buy them all at the Coop," Jackson said. "I do not think the Coop has the student body's interest in mind."

In the fall, when the Coop gave a 10 percent rebate to members on all textbook purchases, many undergraduates said they didn't even know about it.

"I knew it was sometime in October, but it wasn't publicized enough," said Peter S. Galatin '95. "I didn't have an excuse to go the Coop [and] that's where all the signs were."

These critical sentiments prevail on campus. Students routinely criticize the Coop's apparent disregard for student needs, lack of adequate publicity and exorbitant prices.

But this dissatisfaction is not new.

"Twenty years ago when I went here, there was a negative view [of the Coop]," says Coop President Jeremiah P. Murphy, Jr. '73. "The Coop is perceived as part of the establishment."

The 22-member Coop Board of directors is composed of 11 undergraduate and graduate students from Harvard and MIT and 11 non-students.

Its members admit the Coop must do something about its image.

"It's tough mailing things to the students," Murphy says. "There's no question we can communicate better with the students.

"We don't do as many surveys as we should," he adds. "There's not a lot of feedback. We need some direction."

The Coop places newspaper ads, hangs banners from the roof and door-drops flyers through Harvard Student Agencies, but it does not always have campus mailing addresses because many students send their bills home, Murphy says.

A graduate student who is a member of the board says the Coop should attract students with special deals and value prices.

"I'd like to see some kind of structure that's attractive--students saying, `I shop at the Coo because I get this," says Alberto Moel, a member of the 1995-96 Coop board of directors who is in his second year at the Business School.

An undergraduate member of the 1995-96 board says one of his goals is to increase communication with the students.

"I'm going to fight for a change in theelection process so that it's much more exposedprocess so students," says Eugene Koh-'97 '96, whois a Crimson editor "[At the beginning of thesemester], anyone who needs to buy a textbookwould see information about elections."

Chair of the Board of Directors William R.Dickson says he realizes students and othermembers may not always feel their membership isvaluable.

"I think we need to convert the business tomake sure our members want to first belong andsecondly to purchase goods and services," saysDickson, who is senior vice president at MIT.

The Pricing Myth

Contrary to popular student belief that theCoop is wildly overpriced, Murphy says Coop pricesare competitive.

"We may be a dollar over on one and a dollarunder on the other," Murphy says, "For the mostpart, I feel we're fairly competitive."

A Crimson price comparison last week showedthat Murphy's statement is fairly accurate. TheCoop is more expensive than surrounding HarvardSquare stores on some items and less expensive onothers (see graphic).

But students malign the Coop most for itstextbook prices. Because it has a virtual monopolyin Harvard Square, they say, it jacks up textbooksprices to pay for other, less profitabledepartments.

"Usually the [student] felling is--we'reselling women's [clothes and shoes] at a loss, andtextbook sales are subsidizing it," Murphy say.But he says that notion is not accurate

"I'm going to fight for a change in theelection process so that it's much more exposedprocess so students," says Eugene Koh-'97 '96, whois a Crimson editor "[At the beginning of thesemester], anyone who needs to buy a textbookwould see information about elections."

Chair of the Board of Directors William R.Dickson says he realizes students and othermembers may not always feel their membership isvaluable.

"I think we need to convert the business tomake sure our members want to first belong andsecondly to purchase goods and services," saysDickson, who is senior vice president at MIT.

The Pricing Myth

Contrary to popular student belief that theCoop is wildly overpriced, Murphy says Coop pricesare competitive.

"We may be a dollar over on one and a dollarunder on the other," Murphy says, "For the mostpart, I feel we're fairly competitive."

A Crimson price comparison last week showedthat Murphy's statement is fairly accurate. TheCoop is more expensive than surrounding HarvardSquare stores on some items and less expensive onothers (see graphic).

But students malign the Coop most for itstextbook prices. Because it has a virtual monopolyin Harvard Square, they say, it jacks up textbooksprices to pay for other, less profitabledepartments.

"Usually the [student] felling is--we'reselling women's [clothes and shoes] at a loss, andtextbook sales are subsidizing it," Murphy say.But he says that notion is not accurate

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