Turning Somerfield shoppers in to Co-op members is a vital task

The acquisition of Somerfield represents a once in a lifetime opportunity to influence and shape the influx of a large number of new customers and to make them...

But how are we to obtain this with maximum effectiveness, at the right time and in the right place, using creative participatory methods? And what coherent plans exist to achieve concerted action across our trade and membership activities to assure that our ambitions are achieved as and when they become Co-op stores?

Most importantly, will this impart an understanding that the Co-operative Group belongs to its members, with democratic control? This with the added bonus of co-operative banking, insurance, travel, pharmacy, legal services, funeral care, and other goods, which can be purchased online.

The people we employ will be crucial in bringing about this transformation, which has not been attempted on this scale before. We must make the transfer more than changed store fascias, layout, IT systems, the product range, a better price offer than previously available at Somerfield, and freebies given out and soon forgotten.

Will new members be aware that they collectively own their business and understand how they can influence its strategies and direction through the ethical use of the Movement’s purchasing power and the surpluses used to benefit the wider community?

So, how do we help staff impart a co-operative message? Thankfully, at least three aspects are in place. First, our impressive major brand campaign communicates our values and presence across our different businesses.

Second, each region within the Group has its own culture, yet is part of a wider UK organisation. For instance, we now have our own distinctive entity in Wales, with strong cross party support. With the coalition Welsh government strongly favouring mutual solutions and a clear trend towards increasing legislative powers, how can we best play to this strength and maximise our growth and influence in Wales?

Third, as the largest third sector member organisation in Wales, we need to confidently raise our profile, and engage more effectively with members. We need to assure our relationships with kindred organisations and, hopefully, recruit potential members who share our values. Should we also be exploring reciprocal membership activities?

Our ‘Welsh conversation’ should be based upon the old Co-op maxim of ‘informing, then interesting and then involving’ — a process using creative methods in seeking contributions from members about our future direction and work and formally reporting to our 2010 Regional AGM.

Could this include activities between young and old? Perhaps a competition for pupils to discover from their family, relatives and friends, where the former co-operative shop had its presence in their community and to present this using varied methods.

We need to foster better relationships with older people through events to capture their suggestions on a range of issues on our policies and projects.

We will also need to draw upon the varied experiences of other UK nations and regions in a way which enables us to learn from our differences. By doing so we shall build democratic involvement in an extended society and give a warm welcome to Somerfield customers who will now realise they have the added advantage of being active members, alongside those, hopefully, from the Britannia Building Society.

Our double dividend will come in a few years time with more active members, a revitalised co-operative democracy and increased trade and profitability.

• Hilda and David Smith are members of the Group’s South Wales Area Committee and write in a personal capacity.

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