Cutting Edge in the Cotswolds?

Midcounties shares successes and challenges with co-op tour

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From left to right: Bob Burlton, Dave Blackburn, Gail Graham, Robynn Shrader, Paul Hazen (partially obscured), Walden Swanson, Deirdrie Lang, Ruffin Slater, Karen Zimbelman, Doug Walter, Kelly Smith.

How can food co-ops in North America achieve greater alignment and forge a common identity? One way is by learning from co-op movements in the rest of the world. The United Kingdom has 160-plus years of cooperation from which we can learn about growth, decay, endurance, and strategic thinking.

The Midcounties Co-operative—the product of merger among several county-sized co-op chains—has been particularly willing to engage in dialog with North American cooperators. Then-CEO Bob Burlton addressed the Co-op Atlantic annual general meeting in 2001, and Midcounties’ Peter Couchman gave a keynote speech at CCMA 2006 in Atlanta, Ga. This summer I joined nine U.S. cooperators for three days in Oxford and environs as guests of Midcounties.

Cooperative branding, store presentation, national purchasing and marketing, ethical retailing, and staff training and development were topics we tried to cover as we visited five Midcounties’ stores of varying sizes. Amazingly, we learned something about all those topics, and we enjoyed a Royal Shakespeare Company production and visits to two pubs.

Like North American food co-ops, Mid­counties shows strong retail and financial ­performance for the past several years. Yet, as one group member put it, in both movements there’s a conviction that the niche we currently occupy is unsustainable. This belief is fueling innovation and change which just may result in our survival.

Some changes and improvements we saw
Years of effort creating brand standards and a common look among retail cooperative outlets have started to bear fruit. Midcounties has outlets selling food, travel, funerals, prescriptions, and sundries. In the village of Thame, our tour saw three stores on High Street (equivalent to our “Main Street”) with common but distinctive faschias, all part of “The Co-operative.” Peter Couchman regaled us with tales of the road to unification—and the challenges still faced.

Midcounties’ specific initiatives in ethical retailing are impressive—and are making a difference in lives around the world! They have 20 years of campaigning on health-related issues, with the same kind of positive impacts we know North American co-ops have brought to the broader retail sector. We saw Midcounties’ “Fair Trade” displays with point-of-purchase information. They now stock 110 Fair Trade products, with annual sales of £25 million. These concentrate on the familiar (coffee, chocolate) but also include fruits, juices and wines.

Midcounties has not hesitated to use gritty, disturbing images with the Fair Trade campaign. Peter said one measure of success was when an operational manager told him a particular banner was “upsetting—and that’s good!” He interpreted this as staff understanding that the issues went beyond marketing and made the political personal.

The Fair Trade brochure has information about the impact of fair prices, information for local fair trade groups interested in grants, and…a Midcounties Co-operative membership application! There’s a concise description in it of the Superdividend: you earn points on purchases in all trading groups (including autos), showing involvement as a member (by voting, taking a survey, attending events), and for frequency of shopping (bonuses for your 10th, 20th, and 30th visits).

Reflecting on parallels and differences
The U.K. co-ops’ branding initiative seeks to operate attractive retail stores that also market our cooperative advantage. As Peter Couchman told us in Atlanta, their four key themes for doing so are health, community, our world, and the co-operative (which we might read as “cooperation”).

Community building is a shared concern for both co-op movements. The Midcounties Co-operative put 12 percent of their resources (staff time, goods-in-kind, and profits) into the community. This impressive total puts other chain retailers to shame. Co-operative Community Dividends are one important part, a program of grants to groups pursing local projects. Our tour got a clear sense that communities love their co-ops and lavish the care (and sometimes criticism) on them that we recognize from our North American experiences.

Midcounties staff were forthcoming in discussing the tremendous benefits and challenges of working with the Cooperative Retail Trading Group (CRTG). Sales in 2005 for the Group were in excess of £7.5 billion! One buyer now has control over a product category in all retail co-op societies across the United Kingdom. Challenges have come in translating that control to store shelves in oh-so-many stores, and from the shared desire to encourage local products—which by definition aren’t going to be widely available. Shared purposes and values, good personal relations, and a willingness to work through the difficulties have allowed Midcounties and CRTG to place a decent number of local products in many stores.

Key lessons
Local and organic products are important parts of our co-op identities, but other retailers will sell them. The cooperative difference springs from our values, purpose, and principles, rather than simply from our product mix. Products from Oxford Wholefoods help Midcounties make their points: disabled workers package whole grains and nuts, providing independence in the community plus healthy products. Distribution of their products to 40 Midcounties stores provides a chance for another local vendor to share trucking costs, bringing more local products to stores.

Co-ops in the U.K. are rooted in the working class, while in North America they’re largely in college towns. We’re looking to transcend those limits, while staying true to our roots. Can our co-ops and how we present them have similar breadth of appeal?

I left strongly impressed by the leadership of Midcounties Co-operative. CEO Ben Reid, board president Vivian Woodell, Bob Burlton, Peter Couchman, the headquarters staff, and the managers at the stores we visited were all incredibly generous, attentive, and willing to talk with us. Bob Burlton, in particular, was as energetic and informed as any bus driver I’ve ever known—that’s right, the chair of The Cooperative Group drove us around the Cotswolds!

I was also impressed and optimistic that Midcounties has a well-stocked pipeline of employees. Some of our younger guides had but a few years in the co-op movement, but others had more than a decade already. It seemed to me that the younger assistants and store managers that we talked to in the field were gaining training, information, and experience that may—and should—help them to become a future generation of leaders. How great it would be if we could create opportunities for some of the emerging cooperators from North America and the U.K. to learn together and exchange ideas!

On the web

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Doug Walter is membership director at Davis Food Co-op ([email protected]).

See other articles from this issue: #127 November - December - 2006