The final morning of Co-operatives UK’s Co-operative Retail Conference saw a challenge laid out for co-operators: how to take the lead in reinventing towns and communities, and transform the retail space.
Professor Leigh Sparks, from the Institute of Retail Studies at Stirling University, raised the issue of how co-ops and places share the same two characteristics – both are about identity and community.
He said: “We haven’t got a crisis of high street, we’ve got a crisis of place: a crisis of identity.”
Using the example of Stirling, Prof Sparks spoke of a town that has been “decentralised, hollowed out” by shops, offices, cinemas, and schools moving to the outskirts.
Retail was part of this decentralisation, but other things were changing too. We used to adapt our lifestyles to the retail offer, he said. “Now the retail offer is fitting our lifestyles.”
The notion of a high street is often romanticised, said Prof Sparks, and no longer suitable to the modern way of shopping. New ways to attract shoppers must be found. He cited the trial of a House of Fraser concept store in Aberdeen, where customers shop online on the terminals provided, or collect previously ordered products.
He challenged co-ops to be at the forefront of re-energising their communities, and help get people back living and working in the centre of their towns.
This could be pressuring town planners, increasing community support, or lobbying for the improvement of public services and transport. Of all the retailers, said Professor Sparks, this should come most naturally to co-operatives.
“Community, people and place are in your heart, your DNA.”
Jon Alexander, from the New Citizenship Project, agreed with this sense of re-energising towns through retail, and argued there was a larger shift happening.
He spoke of the changing roles of shoppers since the beginning of the twentieth century. Starting off as ‘subjects’ – more passive, happy to receive and dependent – people had become ‘consumers’, wanting to independently choose the best options for themselves. Now, however, there was a further move into being ‘citizens’, with the desire to play an active role in shaping your own options, and increased interdependency.
Mr Alexander dubbed this move a ‘citizenshift’, using the example of supporters taking control of sports clubs. Airbnb was another example, the business model growing from scratch to operating 650,000 rooms in 192 countries in just four years. It took Hilton Hotels 93 years to obtain 610,000 rooms in 88 countries.
“When these models that allow people to work together work, they move fast,” Mr Alexander said. But he also raised the question about how a sharing platform like Airbnb is a multi-national based in San Francisco: “It should be a co-op”.
Mr Alexander ended by asking if co-ops were stuck thinking of people as consumers. Echoing Professor Sparks, he encouraged co-operatives to innovate. He used the example of the Icelandic initiative betriReykjavic, an online platform where people could post ideas of how to improve the city. Since being set up, over half the city’s population had contributed.
Both Professor Sparks and Mr Alexander urged co-ops to take the advantage of the inherent goodwill and sense of community within co-ops, something Co-operatives UK secretary general Ed Mayo picked up on to conclude the conference.
“What an inspiring movement we are, and what an inspiring movement we could be”, he said. “Perhaps we’re not good enough at blowing our own trumpet”.
Read more: Full coverage of the conference.