Covid-19: Updates from the co-op movement, 16 April

The latest from the UK retail sector plus news from the US, Canada, Spain, Kenya and Argentina

UK

Mark Smith CEO of the Southern Co-operative has spoken to a podcast by local radio station Express FM to discuss supply chains and social distancing in stores.

He said the first week of lockdown had been “insane” across the retail industry as shoppers cleared the shelves but that things have calmed down with supply chains holding up.

“The key thing is there was never a shortage of basic foodstuffs, and there still isn’t, and there’s not expected to be,” he said.

He said fresh supplies have been restored but ambient products, which take longer to manufacture, are coming back more slowly. And supply chains are slightly less efficient, with temporary, less experienced staff and the complications of social distancing affecting depot work.

The switch to home working has shrunk food to go sales, he said, in favour of foods to cook at home.

Asked about the dilemma faced by shoppers – warned against frequent shopping but also against buying in bulk – Mr Smith admitted it was ‘complex to do’ but said customers should strike aim for a middle ground.

He said communication and guidance had been given to store colleagues in terms of Covid-19 safety. He said colleagues have “stood up incredibly … a massive contribution from all the frontline teams” adding that food retail is an essential service that people have taken for granted in normal times. Local producers have also stepped up to keep stores supplied, said Mr Smith, adding that he hoped shoppers would keep the taste for local food once the crisis is over.

And there’s some wise words from another retail co-op, Channel Islands Co-op, about the benefits of queuing outside stores to meet social distancing requirements.

Lincolnshire Co-op has announced some new initiatives for those affected by lockdown. It is selling £20 vouchers over the phone which can be used by volunteers, friends or family to pay for the shopping of those who are isolating.

The vouchers are ordered over the phone. They are then sent out by recorded first class post and delivered to a chosen address. They can then be used as payment in Lincolnshire Co-op food stores. This saves people having to hand over a bank card to someone else or worry about how much cash they have.

And for those who have lost a loved one and face the heartbreaking situation of not being able to hold a full service or celebration of their life, Lincolnshire’s funerals business is offering the option of holding a meaningful event at a later date.

“This will provide the opportunity for family and friends to come together to grieve, pay respects and celebrate in a way which has not been possible recently,” it says.

With continued uncertainty over how many small organisations will be able to access government support packages, there is some good news from Southampton’s community-owned October Books which has been awarded a one-off grant from the government to help it through the lockdown. 

“With our doors being shut and many suppliers being on lockdown, despite the orders from our dedicated customers, our sales figures have dropped off considerably,” it says. “This reduction in sales, alongside the inevitable cancelled bookings in our Community Space, and not knowing when non-essential businesses and public spaces will be allowed to reopen, has meant that things were looking incredibly bleak and our overheads were beginning to feel insurmountable.  

“To say that receiving this grant at this time is a huge relief, is an understatement! This news has come at a critical point for October Books, and will help us operate as a viable business going forward, and help us weather the next few months.”

It warns the grant is “not a get-out-jail-free card, but it will enable us to continue to work hard and get back to what we do best that little bit quicker.”

Global

Kenya

Shareholders of the Co-operative Bank of Kenya will be paid their annual dividends on 23 April, which will amount to a total value of Kshs5.9bn (£44m).

The bank hopes the dividend will provide relief to shareholders at a time of severe economic hardship caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. It has also recently made a cash contribution of Kshs 100m (£755,000) to the national Covid-19 Emergency Response Fund.

Earlier this year the bank reported positive financial results for 2019, with a profit before tax of Kshs 20.7bn (£160m), a 14% increase from the previous year.

Set in 1968, the bank was initially a co-operative society but became a fully-fledged commercial bank in 1989. The Bank’s majority shareholder is Co-op Holdings Co-operative Society, which represents Kenya’s co-operative movement. The society will receive a dividend of Kshs 3.79bn (£29m) for its 64.5% stake.

Spain

On Minorca, the Cofarme pharmacies co-operative in Minorca expects to start supplying pharmacies with face masks tomorrow (Thursday). Local news reports that the co-operative has obtained 25,000 masks, whose arrival on the island was delayed by logistical problems.

An earlier attempt to secure masks, in a consortium with nine other co-ops, fell through after the group was outbid by another buyer at the last minute.

USA

Sixteen lineworkers from electric co-ops in Ohio were left stranded in Guatemala when the country closed the borders and grounded all flights in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The team had flown out on March 9 and, as the pandemic crisis escalated, raced to complete a project bringing electricity to homes, schools and churches in two remote villages, before the announced cut-off date for flights out of the country.

NRECA, the sector body for US electric co-ops, reported on the news section of its website that the team completed the work but although they arrived at the airport an hour before the deadline of midnight on 16 March, the commercial airlines had already cancelled all flights.

They were brought home on 19 March after NRECA International arranged a charter plane for the them. Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives and NRECA leaders worked with members of the Ohio congressional delegation and nearly a half dozen federal government agencies to secure permission for the flight from the Guatemalan government.

Canada

Peninsula, a grocery co-op based on Vancouver Island, has pledged to match customer donations of up to CA $150,000 (£85,000) to help frontline healthcare workers on the island with urgently needed equipment and supplies.

Funds will benefit Royal Jubilee, Victoria General, Saanich Peninsula, Cowichan District, and North Island hospitals.

Supporters can donate, and choose the hospital to receive their money, here.

Argentina

Madygraf, a printing business which is part of a generation of ‘recovered factories’ rescued in worker buyouts following the country’s economic crisis of 2001, has switched production to making protective equipment.

The co-op saw orders for its magazine business slump because of lockdown measures, and voted instead to make face masks, anti-bacterial gel and other PPE for local hospitals.

Argentina is suffering the effects of a prolonged recession and social spending cuts, posing a challenge to the country’s ability to provide a healthcare response and to ride out the economic disruption of a lockdown.

This is adding urgency to efforts like those of Madygraf, which has teamed up with local students on the project.

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