While the Co-operative Group has had a torrid time of late, the wider Co-operative brand has remained surprisingly resilient. Consumers, perhaps, don’t necessarily associate the green fascia of their local convenience store with the blue signage of their troubled high street bank.
For Co-operative Food then, the biggest challenge isn’t so much navigating the Group’s travails as finding its place in the increasingly dynamic UK grocery landscape. Among the discounters, Aldi and Lidl’s stellar growth is well documented; at the premium end, it’s only a matter of time before Waitrose overtakes the Co-operative Group as the UK’s fifth biggest supermarket. In convenience – one of The Co-operative Food’s few real strengths – the big names’ aggressive push continues.
Lacking a reputation for particular quality, value or distinctiveness in its food offer, I’ve long argued that the Co-operative Group needs to look back for inspiration on how to move forward. Among the main grocery players, the Co-op’s heritage, with its deep-rootedness in local communities, is the one thing that makes it unique.
However, the spirit of the Rochdale Pioneers has remained an underplayed card, despite the obvious present-day resonance of a community retailer providing local people with quality food at fair prices. Meanwhile, as I argued at last year’s National Retail Consumer Conference, the swallowing-up of smaller societies and the creation of a national Co-operative brand have sometimes been at the expense of stores’ individuality and localness.
Embracing local food therefore seems an obvious way forward for the group; the only question is why it’s taken so long. After all, many of the smaller, regional consumer co-operatives, from Lincolnshire to Allendale, have long thrived by building a grocery offer that is both inspired by and tailored for the local area, and that gives shoppers a clear reason to choose the Co-op over its competitors.
This can work at a bigger scale. Across the country, The Co-operative Food is often the main, or only, food retailer in hundreds of smaller communities, potentially giving it a unique connection to local producers, suppliers and shoppers.
Of course, questions remain over whether the group can possibly be nippy enough to emulate the smaller societies and leverage these opportunities for local sourcing. Its task now is not to see local food in terms of “operational challenges”, but as a chance to carve out a unique position for the Co-operative Food in the most competitive grocery market we’ve ever seen.
Graham Soult is a retail consultant at CannyInsights.com, and spoke about the future of Co-ops at Co-operatives UK’s National Retail Consumer Conference in February 2013.
In this article
- Co-operative Retail Services
- Consumer cooperative
- food retailer
- Graham Soult
- Local food
- Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers
- Southern Co-operative
- The Co-operative brand
- The Co-operative Food
- The Co-operative Group
- Marie-Claire Kidd
- Top Stories