When co-operatives were the first to offer cashback for purchases, open the first self-service stores and put Fairtrade into the mainstream these can be catalogued as some of the defining moments of the retail sector.
It’s important to look back and study where the movement went wrong. There will be differing opinions over whether it was too many co-ops taking time to co-operate, or over-zealous management or even ungovernable directors.
But today, the movement knows change is on the horizon. In 10 years, the Co-operative Group’s crisis will be seen as the focal point where the movement was kickstarted into its next stage of evolution. What that means is still to be seen.
In the interview with chief executive Richard Pennycook, he was candid about the impact of the last two years on the wider movement, especially its fellow retail co-ops with which it shares purchasing power. He has accepted the reality that the Group is no longer the centre of the movement and that it has a lot of catching up to do while it rebuilds itself.
Looking at the Group from a purely retail perspective; it is behind the times in terms of store design when compared to the likes of Midcounties/Central England and it is missing a trick around the community/local supplier iniatives of Lincolnshire and East of England.
From the regional retail co-op point of view; it has been equally frustrating when working within the scope of the old Co-operative Retail Trading Group buying collective. There was no easy provision for a co-op to sell, for example, potatoes from 10 miles down the road. Instead they had to be sourced through “the agreement” hundreds of miles away.
The retail sector’s annual conference took place at the end of last month and there the CRTG replacement – Federal Trading Services – was previewed with a brief outline of the benefits.
While FTS is thin on details at the moment, for innovation to thrive there has to be a way for co-operatives to collectively and smartly work together, but to allow regional iniatives – such as local food – more freedom to prosper.
At the retail conference, it was interesting to hear the American perspective about how 143 individual, independent co-operatives work together for the co-operative good, but retain their own unique identity. The same challenges of a declining market share exist, but the focus there is on how co-operatives are different and how to co-operate through initiatives such as sharing data and insight.
Through co-operation retail co-operatives – in fact all co-operatives – can be smart by bundling the best initiatives, the best ideas and the best people to truly build a real co-operative difference.