Where will Covid leave our towns – and the co-ops that operate in them?

'Amazon is hoovering up more of the spoils and high street businesses which are not able to change their business models will be marginalised'

As we tentatively approach the end of lockdown, measures like social distancing and working remotely are likely to continue for some time, with millions staying closer to home. 

Small  towns and suburbs, previously deserted during the day, look set for an economic revival – and signs are that co-ops large and small may be among the major beneficiaries.

Going online

In a devastating year for the retail sector, the Co-op Group reported in September 2020 its market share during the first lockdown was 7.1%, the highest for almost 20 years. 

Customers staying closer to home meant 1.7m more households shopping at their local convenience store and underlying profit rose 46%. The Group also stepped up its online offer. In August 2020, for the first time, Deliveroo customers were able to order from 400 stores with a combined population of 27 million people across the UK – making Co-op the most widely available supermarket on Deliveroo’s app. 

The Group’s head of eCommerce, Chris Conway, said: “We expect on-demand convenience to continue to grow through 2021. We are investing in continued growth of our online offer to meet customer needs when, where and how they want to shop with us.

“During 2020 the Group rolled out its online offer at pace, through our online shop and with partners. While on-demand grocery was already popular with a younger demographic, new shoppers were seeing the benefits of fast, reliable and convenient access to food.

“With our physical locations closer to the customer and delivery times shorter, Co-op is uniquely placed to create an online model enabling us to benefit from increase in online demand. Shoppers valued their local shop throughout the pandemic, and with our online grocery orders picked from the local store we have seen on-demand fulfilment further maximise the value and, add to the customer offer of our convenience stores.”

Last year over £15m in donations and surplus food was also given by the Group to local causes such as food banks and other groups. That closer  partnership between the retail sector and communities looks set to endure far beyond the pandemic. 

Rethinking the town

Jay Tompt is co-ordinator of Totnes REconomy project, part of Totnes Transition Towns project, and an associate lecturer at Plymouth University. 

“We are part of a network of towns all over the  country aligned with the aims of co-operatives and people who promote them,” he says. 

“Covid-19 brought a lot of change for those of us interested in creating the kind of positive change we might all like to see: more justice; more ecological thinking; and resilience. It was a shock and unexpected but we were  prepared to respond.

“There were offers of help from local entrepreneurs, our town council and many people formed mutual aid groups to help their neighbours with deliveries and other challenges like making PPE and masks.”

Related: Reimagining community by turning assets into co-ops

Thriving co-ops in the Totnes area include the community-owned New Lion Brewery, which is still brewing craft ales, and the Transition Homes Community Land Trust, which is building 31 eco-homes on a site near Dartington, complete with growing spaces and an orchard. 

Mr Tompt believes positive change can come out of the pandemic, but  acknowledges the road ahead is going to be difficult.

“Covid-19 accelerated a demise already in motion,” he warns. “In many ways it is a huge opportunity but it will be harder to make a living. Amazon is hoovering up more of the spoils and high street businesses which are not able to change their business models will be marginalised. We have a vibrant local economy here with lots of independent businesses – but there are still empty buildings.  

“What the new high street will look like we do not know –  maybe former shops working as community hubs and cafés with co-working spaces and other spaces where people can congregate with more arts and performance, but it remains to be seen. We are constantly looking for ways to support progressive, regenerative businesses to participate in the economy.”  

In Scotland, Scotmid Co-op saw an impressive 43% rise in its Snappy Shopper online app during the first lockdown and demand has continued to grow ever since. 

Leigh Sparks, professor of retail studies and deputy principal at the University of Stirling, says: “The question is to what extent is it going to be a continuing sequence of lockdowns or will we accommodate and learn to live with Covid-19? That will be the issue for the next three to five years.

“The best way to think about it is as an acceleration of previous retail trends. What we do not know is how it will settle down in terms of continued growth of internet retailing and major retailers closing physical stores and buildings. M&S have already said they are going to take out the vast majority of their Oxford Street retail space and John Lewis is closing stores. 

“Where we might get to is a lot more mixed use with people living in city centres rather than purely retail. The thought that millions will travel every day to stare at a computer screen does seem a bit odd to many of us now.”

He expects patterns of future commuting to be more mixed, with in long-term increase of home-working, and small independent businesses looking to open in smaller places. 

“The big increase in sense of neighbourhood or community was already there with a trend towards local convenience stores growing quite rapidly,” says Prof Sparks. “They have gained as people see they were there all the time – these have been part of the local response.”

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