150 years ago, Chelmsford Star Co-operative was born, and 2017 is going to be a year of huge celebration.
The society is presenting an exhibition at Chelmsford Museum from June until August, and every week a free basket of shopping is given away to a member – all part of a plan to make 2017 ‘the best year yet to be a member of Chelmsford Star (so far)’.
“As we celebrate our 150th anniversary, the quote by Henry Ford, ‘Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success’, comes to mind,” says chief executive Barry Wood.
“I am proud to lead the society as we celebrate our 150th anniversary, and – as the current custodians of co-operation in Chelmsford – lay the foundations for the coming decades for our members.”
“We are encouraging people to join, and we can see it building momentum,” adds Kevin Bennett, head of membership and marketing. “Later in the year we will also be introducing a trial of member-only prices on certain health and beauty products, and if this is successful, it could move into other sectors too.”
To mark the anniversary, the society is launching a 150th Fairtrade heritage chocolate bar (available from late spring) and is launching a commemorative book at its AGM on 8 May.
CHELMSFORD STAR WAS FOUNDED… on 11 April 1867 at the society’s very first AGM. This year’s celebration takes place on the 150th AGM, on 8 May 2017.
BY… a group of 18 owners from local ironworks, who became known as the Iron Band – Essex’s equivalent of the Rochdale Pioneers.
THE SOCIETY’S ORIGINAL AIM… was to improve the lives of people in the area. Chelmsford had similar issues to the rest of the country with adulterated foods, dodgy weights and poor living and working conditions. In Essex, there was a particular problem with coal prices and the price of meat (the area was badly hit by the cattle plague of 1866, when 330,000 had to be slaughtered).
IN THE FIRST YEAR… the co-op grew to 800 members and sales of £4,316.
TODAY… there are over 28,000 active members and the society’s gross takings for last year amounted to £103.5m.
THE FIRST PRODUCTS… were coal and drapery, and the society also offered a range of tea, coffee, snuff, butter and flour. In its department store, menswear was also popular, although this tailed off with World War I. Today, ladieswear is very popular, as are beds – Chelmsford Star has the largest bed showroom in Essex. In the food stores, chilled meals and food to go are best sellers.
SOME OF THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES… were in the 1870s, when the 20-year Long Depression began, nearly wiping the co-operative out as members began withdrawing money. During the two world wars there were a few store fires and later, in the 1980s, came recession and unemployment.
THE BIGGEST CHANGE… has been its geographical expansion. The society focused on Chelmsford and the surrounding suburbs for a long time, but in 1969 it absorbed Braintree Co-op and started to spread its wings further. Today Chelmsford Star has 42 food shops, two travel agents, two department stores and seven funeral homes, trading across mid-Essex and Greater London.
ITS RELEVANCE TODAY… comes from the fact the co-op is still about serving the community – even if people are less interested in coal. Its mission is to ‘To work together giving life and meaning to the co-op difference by trading ethically in order to share our success, and serve, support and sustain local communities’. The society supports over 300 charities through its day to day business – and has calculated that 33p in every £1 spent in stores is reinvested in Essex.
WHAT HAS THE ORGANISATION LEARNED? “You need to listen to the members and what they want, and not be afraid to try new ideas,” says Kevin Bennett. “We are running a business for members and the community – even if they aren’t speaking to you directly, you can watch and learn from their actions.”
Alan Reynolds is one of the longest-serving members of staff at Chelmsford Star. He joined straight after leaving school in 1974, getting a Saturday job in the record department at the society’s Central store. “I’ve done a bit of everything,” he says, “from houseware and clothing to being a menswear buyer.” He is now the customer service manager and admin manager for furniture.
“What made the co-op stand out at the time was the fact it offered a lot of training and management qualifications, which weren’t always available elsewhere. Back then to work for the local co-op was an achievement in itself,” he adds.
The biggest change over his 43 years has been the technology. “When I started, using a phone was an event rather than something you did every five minutes, now everything is done using hand-held computers. I’m not totally convinced it’s made the job easier! But the tills, barcode scanning, instant communication… It’s been embraced by Chelmsford Star every step of the way.”
Another fond memory is how working together led to socialising together. “Socialising became an extension of work – playing football or cricket with colleagues provided a sense of community and a support network,” says Mr Reynolds. “You could be working under a manager one day, and opening the batting with him the day after.” Most staff are part time rather than full time, he adds, and being open seven days a week makes it more difficult to pull a sports team together.
“Chelmsford Star has always been fair,” he says. “You can’t work at a co-op without becoming a co-operator of sorts… I’ve had incredible fun.”