Co-op stores come in a range of shapes and sizes – from the local outlets of big retail societies to independent village shops – but they face similar challenges. So how can they find a way to deal with them? Delegates at the Co-operative Retail Conference, held in Stratford earlier this month, heard lessons from high-performing stores.
Chris Matthews, manager of the East of England Co-operative’s supermarket in Hamblin Walk, Woodbridge, outlined the shop’s strategy to attract more members.
“Our branches sit at the heart of the communities they serve,” he said. “One of the key aspects of the co-op’s approach is to focus on local produce. The society works to develop close relationships with local suppliers, who often deliver products directly to store. Producers are featured in videos and promoted through local campaigns.”
Mr Matthews, a food store manager since the age of 18, said members of the society spend significantly more than non-members. They are also more likely to receive communication from the co-op and learn about special offers and discounts.
The shop surveys its customers on a regular basis to find out how satisfied they are and what they want from the store. Staff members also take part in employee engagement surveys and receive training – including in dementia-friendly retail.
Similarly, at the Midcounties Co-operative’s shop in Chipping Norton, colleagues are given the opportunity to share ideas via the society’s colleague council and through a colleague development review.
The 15,300 sq ft shop is part of the Midcounties’ premium stores, having been revamped in 2015. As well as doubling in size, the store now offers a larger range of local products. Colleague customer training is also built into the premium store format.
The society launched a Customer First programme last year, which uses the results of two customer surveys to simplify operational routines for staff and deliver improved customer experience.
When they join the Midcounties, colleagues undertake an induction followed by new colleague training and reviews, and specialist knowledge training. They are also able to discuss their career progression. Staff members who wish to advance within the society can undertake retail apprenticeships or graduate programmes.
When Aldi opened a local store nearby, the Midcounties Chipping Norton store was able to hang on to its entire staff.
“We did research and worked with the marketing team. We arranged for the team to have an away day and we met with colleagues in small groups. We discussed the benefits of working for co-ops: we are flexible, do community hours and give support to local community,” explained Adam Quinton, manager of the Chipping Norton store.
At the smaller end of the retail scale, Alison Macklin told the story of her village store, the Brockweir and Hewelsfield Community Shop in Gloucestershire, registered as an industrial and provident society. With the nearest town seven miles away, the shop is the only retailer in the area, providing essential services for the local community.
The environmentally friendly shop has a solar voltaic roof and uses a heat pump to save energy costs. The shop, which includes a café and a post office is entirely staffed by over 40 volunteers – the oldest is 89.
More than 30% of products sold come from the local community. Customers can also benefit from reverse credit and receive a bill for their shopping at the end of the month. The store acts as a social hub for the community, running different events and food and wine tastings and giving away gift vouchers.
“We do all sorts of little things for the community. Our main aim is to put back any surplus into the community,” said Ms Macklin.
In spite of its active engagement of volunteers and local people, the store continues to face challenges from online retailers and delivery systems.
“More and more retailers are using local food. The important things remain colleagues and customers. Our challenges are very similar to yours,” she told delegates.