Meet Chris Matthews, director at East of England Co-op

Chris also serves as a store manager at the society and discusses the challenges of juggling the two roles

Chris Matthews was one of East of England’s youngest store managers when he was first appointed. He was elected to the board in 2016 and is also on the Co-op Group National Member’s Council, representing East of England on one of the Independent Society Member seats.

How did you get involved in East of England?

I started with a paper round for my local Co-op Group shop when I was 13. When we moved to East Anglia, I got a job as a customer service assistant at an East of England store, and moved up to supervisor, then store manager when I was 18. I was elected to the board in May 2016, when I was 26, after seeing the position advertised in a local store. The society was doing a push on director positions – I decided to find out a bit more about it, applied and people voted for me. I think people appreciate the fact that as a colleague, you understand the shop floor aspects of the role. You talk to a lot of people – to customers, members, people outside shop – and you understand their worries and concerns. You’re in a position where you’re better enabled to understand the challenges and wishes of members and customers. The East of England board currently has 16 directors, of whom up to two can be colleagues (there’s no minimum). 

How have you been supported in both roles?

Since being elected director, I have received a lot of professional development through attending courses, workshops, and events where specialists come in and teach around specific subjects, such as finance, digital or property. Conferences like Congress and Co-operatives UK’s Co-op Retail Conference helped too, as have other directors, who provided an outline of the role and took me under their wing. East of England is also supporting me through an executive MBA programme – I’m currently in the second year of a three-year course. 

In terms of the store manager position, the retail side of the business has been very understanding of the time I need to do the director part of the position. It’s a fine balance – I have many hats.

What has been the biggest challenge?

The balancing act between keeping the fundamental confidentiality of the boardroom and the practical activity of the store manager day job. You can have an advanced understanding of both roles, but the challenge is where you apply the knowledge; I very much have to have a board hat and a store manager hat, and I think the ability to interchange them is really important. The role of a board is to be strategic – and if you don’t have different hats you could very easily slip into operational decision-making mode when you should be strategic, and vice versa. You need to have respect for the relevant authority chains.

Having said that, I have found adapting to the two roles easier than I thought I would, in part because they are separate; one is very hands on, the day-to-day running of a business and stacking beans on a shelf; the other is strategic, making decisions based on the information that you’re given. The crossover has positives too, especially in terms of providing a different perspective in the boardroom, utilising my retail knowledge to the advantage of the business. I can give a certain viewpoint based on personal experiences. In the same way that the accountants and lawyers on our board can provide specialist knowledge, my strength is giving the
grassroots perspective.

What have been your proudest moments?

As a store manager, it was when our Woodbridge store was accredited with a Gold Award from the Suffolk Carbon Charter (SCC), which looks at carbon reduction measures made by Suffolk’s small and medium businesses. It was one of the first retail stores to be accredited at gold standard, and recognised things like the local supplier visits we organise for staff, where colleagues go to visit the farms where the products they sell come from. We’ve had staff in welly boots picking up oyster nets, and in fields picking strawberries. Through doing that, SCC saw the real field-to-fork philosophy within the store. They were impressed with that, as well as the other sustainability work we do, like recycling and the Co-op Guide to Dating initiative, which sells goods cheaply after their best-before dates. – and the way these are applied at store level.

As a director, it was when I was appointed chair of the Member and Community Engagement Committee, which includes overseeing the strategy for member participation and community engagement. It’s my proudest moment because ultimately in co-operative retail – whether you’re doing a paper round, are in customer service, managing a store or being a director – your aim is making sure customers have an enjoyable experience in your co-op and want to come back. That’s what I came into the job for, to
serve customers.

What do you think 2020 holds for co-operative retailers?

There has been a lot of benefit from Co-operatives UK’s work to look at legislation regarding the co-op retail sector – and the fact that we’re now identified as co-ops, not just like any other retailer. I think that’s the first step in what could be a really successful period for co-operative retail.  

In terms of the retail market, there has obviously been a big push on fresh sales, free-from and vegan products. The quality in these areas has really improved. It also appeals to people that we have a lot of local, quality free-from options. There’s also a sense of local premium choice too – both our Framingham and Woodbridge stores sell fresh oysters that are supplied from less than 10 miles away. It’s something different and interesting to offer our customers. The FRTS chilled range has improved greatly over the last few years, and the Co-op Irresistible range is one of the premium high quality ranges on the high street that people trust. The new vegan Gro range is very popular with customers too, offering a good point of difference. 

Of course Brexit is always an uncertainty, but what better answer than co-operation? If we all work together, we’re going to be a lot stronger.

Where is East of England Co-op going to be in 5-10 years’ time?

We are a healthy growing business. A few of our recent successes have been our security business – and our flagship food store model. These stores have increased in-store decoration, and a greater choice of products across our ranges, in turn helping us to diversify our target market, making us more available to more customers. We wouldn’t have been selling oysters five years ago – but now people are engaging with our premium products, while still coming to us for the basic milk, bread and eggs weekly shop offering. 

Hopefully that trend will continue. With the flagship stores, we have found a model that works for us, but we need to be continuously mindful of how the retail grocery market is changing; for example, shoppers do tend to revert to local products and embrace home-grown and locally produced goods in uncertain times.

At East of England we are also seeing the age of members falling. There are more younger people coming into our stores, attracted by our increased fresh, vegan and free-from ranges. We have been targeting younger shopper demographics, and are starting to see the benefits of that. 

Chris will be speaking at the Co-operative Retail Conference (Cheshire, 28 Feb – 1 Mar) on the future of membership. What are the biggest membership challenges for retail consumer co-ops? Are conventional membership offers the answer or should retailers be diversifying what they are doing to change the way members perceive their co-op?

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