Food co-ops need to have good finance and administrative systems to keep records of orders and sales as well as contact details for members and customers.

You could keep paper records, use Excel spreadsheets, a web-based database and/or an Access database. To develop relationships with customers it can be useful to send them newsletters. Using tools such as Mailchimp can be a useful and secure way to store personal details in line with GDPR requirements.

It is important to have a set of simple financial procedures that everyone involved understand and can easily follow and if you’re thinking of applying for funding then you will need to show your most recent accounts. It is useful to create standardised paperwork to record income and expenditure, and have clear procedures for cash handling.

If you are setting up an informal buying club (for example as a group of friends) then you might not want or need to open a bank account. If you are running a box scheme you could avoid handling cash by getting all members to pay by standing order, but this is not practical when running a stall, market or shop. 

Useful cash handling procedures:

  • Ensure you have a float (including coins for change - you get order these from your bank) and have two people check that it is accurate at the start and end of day
  • Provide your volunteers with a cashing up sheet to record sales
  • Any food used throughout the day for tastings should be recorded, as well as any wastage
  • Deposit your takings at the bank as soon as possible
  • Try not to make payments directly from cash received, and if you do make sure receipts (including any volunteer expenses) are kept for your records

It is up to you how you record sales and orders:

Paper-based systems

This involves using a note book or record sheets to write down orders, amounts sold, and customer details. You can buy pre-printed cash books from many stationers - but you may need to have to have several different books to record different information.

The advantage with a paper-based system is that it is simple and you don't need access to a computer or any technical knowledge. However, you need to make sure that volunteers always have the relevant books, so they have to be taken to every food co-op session. It is also more difficult to create a backup copy, apart from with carbon paper or making photocopies - so if your books were ever mislaid you could lose a lot of valuable information. 

The other disadvantage is that as everything has to be handwritten it could also take a lot of time to fill in, especially if there are a lot of members. It may also be more open to error due to misreading the information or adding up wrong.

Excel or Google Sheets spreadsheets

You can use Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets to type your information into a table on the computer. Excel is designed to record both contact details and financial information and can be used to do various calculations, including working out your prices or calculating your overall expenditure.

The advantages with using a computer-based spreadsheet are that the data is in a standardised format and it can be e-mailed to different people involved in the food co-op. It is also possible to cut and paste information from other spreadsheets, for example catalogues from wholefood suppliers.

The main disadvantage is that you need to have access to a computer, software, and an internet connection. Anyone responsible for updating the records will need to have some IT skills, although spreadsheets are relatively easy to use.

Web-based databases

Having a web-based database such as Buckybox or Open Food Network, allows your customers to place their orders and pay on-line. Most web-based systems will manage all finances as well as customer details and orders and also have other functions such as enabling you to print off invoices. This sort of system is good if you have large numbers of customers and also if you have several different outlets or multiple drop offs.

The main advantage is that all your orders will be handled by one system rather than lots of different spreadsheets and databases. Also if designed well they are generally very user friendly and easy to use.

The main disadvantage is that anyone using the system needs to have Internet access. However in some cases if a lot of your customers don't have computers then you may be able to identify someone who could enter orders on their behalf e.g. a school receptionist entering orders on behalf of parents. Also there is always a cost whenever you pay on-line, as payment systems like Paypal charge a fee per order and a percentage of the cost. Therefore paying on-line is really only cost effective if you spending quite a lot. However, it is also possible for people to order on-line but still pay by cash, cheque or standing order. A web-based system may also cost quite a lot to develop so you may need to secure funding for this and there will be an on-going web hosting cost.

Access databases

Access databases are quite sophisticated but are also simple to use for entering information. You may need a dedicated admin person who is responsible for entering all the orders - but it is also important that everyone else at the food co-op understands how to use it in case of sickness or absence.

The main advantage of using a database is once you have set it up and entered all the products and customer details it can speed up order compilation and reduces errors. You can also produce reports so you can see easily whether your sales have increased. An Access database works well if you have regular customers and they order similar items every time e.g. if you run a bag or box scheme or a wholefood co-op.

The main disadvantage is that Access databases do not handle finances apart from putting in total prices of goods per customer. So you will still need other software to do your accounts, such as Excel or Sage. Also they can be quite complicated to set up if you are not fully trained in how to use Access.

To find more useful food co-op related information visit our homepage

Food Co-ops toolkit: The Food Co-ops Toolkit will give you all the information you need to set up your own food co-op.

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