It is the end of an era for Penrith Co-operative Society. Some 123 years after it formed, it will become part of Scotmid, Scotland’s biggest regional co-operative.
Penrith Co-op, as the society is known locally, is small and friendly, with nine shops in the northern Lake District and the Eden and Weardale Valleys.
The last five years has brought big changes, especially in Penrith and Keswick, where the society has its two biggest stores.
After fire destroyed Morrisons Penrith in 2009, Penrith Co-op’s town centre department store enjoyed an increase in sales of over £1 million. But in 2010 Morrisons reopened as a superstore and the Co-operative Group rebranded the town’s Somerfield.
The following year, Booths and Sainsbury’s both opened on the edge of town. Sales at Penrith Co-op’s flagship store suffered as a result.
In Keswick, following requests from members, the society opened a new store in 2010, offering basics including hardware, bedding, clothing and gifts. Sales were disappointing and it closed after 18 months.
Despite this, Penrith Co-op’s supermarket in Keswick is well-located and, although it requires major refurbishment, has the potential to capitalise on Keswick’s tourist trade and a less saturated retail environment than Penrith.
As well as closure of the Keswick hardware store, Penrith Co-op’s root-and-branch review led to the loss of 20 staff, mainly in Penrith, including a senior manager and a store manager. It helped reduce costs and, coupled with withdrawal from clothing and expansion of the furniture department in Penrith, helped the society stay in profit.
For many years Penrith Co-op had relied on property sales in order to stay in the black. It only reversed this trend in 2009.
While its urban branches have had a turbulent time, its rural village stores have generally become stronger. In Cumbria, both Lazonby and Hallbankgate offer post office facilities, a regular mobile library service in partnership with the local council and a monthly police drop-in. Lazonby was refurbished in 1997 and sales have since increased from £2,000 to £40,000 a week.
The society has a strong foothold in Upper Weardale, County Durham, too, with post offices in its Westgate and Frosterley stores.
Each of its seven rural branches has a unique identity, proof of Penrith Co-op’s devotion to the communities it serves.