UK’s retail co-ops continue their response to Covid-19

Co-op News will bring continued round-ups from the efforts of the UK retail co-op movement during the coronavirus crisis

The UK’s retail co-op sector has been continuing to develop its response to the fast-changing Covid-19 crisis and national lockdown.

As with other players in the retail industry, co-ops have been stepping up social distancing measures to protect colleagues and customers, with the installation of plastic screens at till points and floor markers to indicate two metre distances, the introduction of gloves and other protective gear for staff, and increased cleaning and hygeine measures.

The Co-op Group won plaudits this week from the Guardian newspaper for its efforts, including the hiring of 5,000 extra store workers to cope with increased demand, offering temporary employment to hospitality workers, and giving a weekly £20 voucher to the 6,500 pupils it 25 Co-op Academy schools who receive free school meals.

But it’s not just the Group which deserves praise. Efforts to help communities are running throughout the movement, with several societies donating to foodbanks via FareShare and the Trussell Trust, along with continually updated measures to protect staff and customers, and to hire extra workers to keep shelves full.

New initiatives at the Group include further efforts to develop its community outreach. It has updated its Co-operate Covid-19 page to signpost people on how to volunteer, keep well and get help. Its network of Member Pioneers is signing up to and sharing Covid-19 Mutual Aid.

The Group has shared Kindness postcards with MPs and colleagues, and has emailed members with links to Co-operate, Wellbeing advice and asking them how they would like to contribute.

It has also committed to support the National Emergency Trust (NET) appeal through digital fundraising for an initial period of a month, with a rolling month extension up to three months, and identified where its charity partnerships with Mind, Scottish Association for Mental Health and Inspire can respond to the mental wellbeing impacts of coronavirus.

Central England Co-op is also on the lookout for community volunteers among its members and customers, to help those who are self-isolating.

Volunteers should pick up a special green card from one of the society’s stores, fill in their details and pop it through the door of someone they know is self-isolating in their community.

Jenny Holden, customer services assistant at Overseal Food Store, said: “We have seen so many people take one of these cards and become community volunteers.

“We are all facing challenges at this time but what really is nice to see is how people are also thinking of others.”

Thousands of customers have already expressed interest in becoming volunteers, including Cllr Joanna West, from Derby, who sits on the society’s Membership and Community Council.

She said: “I’ve spent the last four days at a lovely store at a Heatherton Village on the outskirts of Derby, assisting however I can. I’ve stocked shelves, scanned labels to display new products that have come in to replace the usual stock, cleaned fridge doors and shelves, and for the last two days I’ve been stationed on the front door cleaning baskets and trolley handles and asking customers to wait and be patient as we manage social distancing.”

Meanwhile, Southern Co-op has updated the News with its efforts to tackle the crisis. It says: “We’re closing our stores when we receive deliveries and replenish stock to protect our colleagues. Our colleagues are monitoring the amount of customers in our stores at any one time and have the option of temporarily closing the doors if necessary until capacity is back to a safe level.”

Cleaning and hygiene measures have been stepped up and the limit for contactless payments has been increased to £45 to limit cash handling. It hopes to have this in place by 6 April.

Its crematoria and natural burial ground have been closed to the public except for funerals which can only be attended by immediate family. Free webcast services have been introduced at The Oaks, Havant and East Devon Crematorium to go some way to helping mourners who are not allowed to attend a service.

Midcounties Co-op has announced its latest initiative to reward frontline colleagues for their hard work during the crisis.

For the next four weeks, all customer-facing front line colleagues will receive a 10% bonus on the base rate of pay for hours actually worked from the start of next week. Any customer-facing front line colleague that currently has a child in one of Midcounties’ nurseries will receive enhanced discount from 30% to 50%, again from Monday.

All food and post office front line colleagues will receive a meal deal on each day they are working.  

Funeral and healthcare colleagues will be able to claim back the equivalent of the cost of a meal deal £3.50 on the days they are working in front line operations.

Childcare colleagues can get lunch through the nursery kitchen on the days they are at work. Midcounties has also made arrangements with Creed for Childcare colleagues to receive food delivery parcels. While these will be charged for, it does provide a shopping service for those colleagues who are at work in nurseries.

All of these arrangements will be in place for the next four weeks, at which point Midcounties will review the situation.

Central England has also announced discounts as part of its measures to help staff.

Scotmid Co-op – which has suspended its Community Connect scheme to avoid the risk of transmitting the virus when cards are handed over for scanning – has come up with its own community initiative, Sharing Smiles.

This is asking children to draw pictures and write letters to care home residents to help them feel connected during the pandemic, with care homes and support facilities across the country forced into lockdown, cutting residents off from family and friends.

Scotmid communities manager Lynne Ogg, who is responsible for the initiative, said:“Since launching, more than 50 care providers from across Scotland have contacted us to say they would like to be included to receive pictures and letters.

“It’s a simple idea but a great way to keep children busy while also providing a valuable task that will help connect them with others at this difficult time.

“Schools have also been in touch to say they are sending the details out to parents to get involved and a care home in Inverness has said they would like to both receive and share artwork they have been working on. We hope to be able to share a lot of smiles in the weeks ahead.”

Scotmid is asking for drawings and letters to be sent in by email to [email protected]

They will be collated by the communities team before being sent on to care providers who can print them off and distribute them to residents.

Christine Thomas, service manager at Capability Scotland, said: “We are a large charity that supports people with disabilities to live their best life ever.

“Life for our customers has changed dramatically over the past week, as they are now advised to go into isolation to ensure they stay safe and healthy.

“Contact with the outside world is precious, so it was hugely uplifting to read an email entitled ‘stay connected’; what a wonderfully touching idea this is. One of our social media hashtags is #creatingsmiles and being part of this project will most definitely achieve that.”

Chelmsford Star has postponed its AGM but its member elections are continuing, and once again its board positions will be contested.

Many of its Quadrant department store staff have voluntarily redeployed to assist in the society’s food stores, where managers have the power to limit number of people in shop at anyone time, and to close for up to an hour a day to get deliveries out.

Head of membership and marketing Kevin Bennett said: “Our community card scheme means we have contact with a large number of local groups, including those who deal with the elderly, and vulnerable. We’re speaking to them directly to assist where we can.

“Times are undoubtedly difficult, but I definitely feel this pandemic is bringing out the best in a lot of people. We’re hearing many positive messages from our customers about how our food teams are responding to the challenges with positivity and kindness.”

Channel Islands Co-op has employed more than 100 people on zero-hour contracts to help in its stores. It has expanded the home delivery scheme it launched for vulnerable islanders; this started out as a list of items to choose but now provides a large or small box of essential food items and some basic household products.

“We were the first retailer in the Channel Islands to launch such a scheme and it has been hugely popular,” a spokesperson said. “We are also working on an online system which will increase deliveries to 100 per day.”

Allendale Co-op, a single-store retailer in Hexham, is also working hard to meet demand, with orders rising from its usual level of around 10 a day to 80. General manager Neville Pringle has told customers the store will not be able to add extras to orders.

Radstock Co-op has also put strict sanitary measures in place, with floor distance markers and other signage, issuing face masks and gloves to frontline staff, installing screens and hand sanitiser at till points and increasing cleaning routines.

It is encouraging contactless payments and is restricting the number of customers allowed in stores.

It has suspended use of its membership card until further notice and will make a donation equivalent to the value of the dividend earned to UK charities dealing with the Covid-19 crisis. The society is also supporting schools with vouchers for those receiving school meals

To support colleagues, it is offering elearning courses on coping with stress and anxiety, and a 24 hour counselling phone line has been put in place. Radstock has also developed IT infrastructure to facilitate working from home where possible and curtailed all non-essential travel.

Head of PR and communications Vicki Przytocki said: “We review the operation on a daily basis and continue to monitor external guidance, internal input and suggestions from our colleagues and feedback from our members and customers.

“Our colleagues have responded with courage, commitment and dedication and have truly shown what the spirt of working co-operatively can achieve in such challenging and uncertain times.”

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