Yesterday I addressed a gathering of co-op/mutual senior leaders from across the co-operative sector in the UK. It was the first such meeting for several years and gave me the opportunity to set out the challenges facing the movement in the 21st century. The following is what I had to say:

One of the commitments I’ve made for myself in my new role is to build both a stronger Co-op Group but also a stronger co-operative movement.

The secret to that, in my view, is to give greater emphasis to the idea that we’re not merely a loose collection of diverse businesses. We’re something much more than the sum of our parts. Or at least we should be.

What makes co-ops and mutuals distinctive is our democratic model of ownership and a way of doing business that sees commercial endeavour as an expression of social and ethical progress. In short, we believe that business can be a powerful force for good.

These things ought to be compelling and attractive ideas to the general public – especially at a time when trust in institutions, the media, politicians, and indeed CEOs, is at an all-time low.

Across the Co-op movement there’s no doubt that we’re doing some great things. I’m proud of the progress we’ve made at the Co-op Group over the last year to radically revitalise our Membership offer and return to our community and campaigning roots.

But I don’t think the average person on the street truly ‘gets’ what we are about. They certainly don’t see the Co-op Group or the movement as a whole as part of the solution to the failings and frustrations of modern life.

There are good reasons for this.

Cultural shift

You can take a business studies course or an economics degree and never learn about the Co-op business model. You can study British history without discovering the Rochdale Pioneers.

But it’s not just a failing of the education system. It’s a question of changing national culture as well.

Since 1945 we’ve seen major shifts in how we see ourselves and how we relate to each other. We’ve developed into a society where the individual is ‘King’ or ‘Queen’. We’re encouraged to think in terms of ‘rights’ rather than ‘responsibilities’. We’ve become ‘consumers’ rather than ‘citizens’. A nation, not of shop-keepers, but of shoppers.

So the challenges that face the co-operative movement today are ones of ‘trust’ and ‘individualism’.

I don’t have all of the answers to these challenges. In fact part of the reason why I want the Co-op Group to engage more fully with the wider family of co-ops and mutuals is because none of us will be able to work this out on our own.

Relevance

However, I’m quite certain that ensuring that we are relevant in people’s lives and to their communities will be part of the solution.

The reason why the Rochdale consumer co-op model went ‘viral’ through the middle of the 19th century and up to the mid-20th century was because we were addressing an unmet need in a way that gave people confidence and security and belief. And we created an emotional connection with our customers as well as an economic one.

We need to find how to create that relevance and that emotional connection once again.

As the Co-op Group we have to ask ourselves some big questions: Are we still addressing the most important needs of our members? Are we serving the markets in which we trade in ways that are relevant and co-operatively distinctive enough? Are there new markets for us where the state or privately own business or PLCs are failing to provide a good response?

Affordable housing for the young and social care for the elderly stand out as today’s pressing social needs. Should we be looking to enter that space? Or is that too ambitious? Would smaller local co-ops be better placed to do that in towns and cities across the country? Or can we learn from the small-scale housing and social care co-ops that already exist and think through how to scale up their ideas to a national level? Perhaps Co-ops abroad have better answers to this than us.

And how do we attract a new generation of Co-op members? We know that our current membership is made up of people mostly over the age of 40. We also suspect we’re not as ethnically diverse in our membership as a national retailer ought to be. Do we need a specific membership offer for different age groups and communities? Is our data good enough to allow us to do this?

When we campaign are we being too safe? Are we afraid to make enemies? Does that reticence mean our long reputation for championing social change is now failing to cut through to the public?

Do we look to grow organically or do we look for more creative expansion through franchise propositions? Is the way to create value for our members by expanding our wholesaling operation beyond other Co-ops to increase our purchasing power?

And are we thinking far enough ahead? Are we considering the major changes that are coming and that will radically alter our lives? Automation of jobs. Driverless cars. The internet of everything.

I’m throwing these questions out there because I want to see a lively debate. I want people to talk about Co-ops and understand why our way of working can address today’s social and economic needs in ways that put people first without sacrificing quality or service.

A moment of opportunity 

The Brexit vote in Britain, the Trump victory in the States, the elections of Macron in France and Trudeau in Canada, Jeremy Corbyn’s performance at the last general election, all make me think that the co-op movement is entering a moment of opportunity that we must not miss.

There’s a new generation who are refusing to be ignored. There’s a groundswell of feeling that the old ways of working aren’t acceptable anymore.

To take this opportunity we have to work harder to explain the co-op way of ownership and doing business. We have to make sure we’re relevant to our members’ needs and distinctive in how we deliver our services to them.

We need to demonstrate and become famous for strengthening the communities in which we trade. We have to be smarter with data. And bolder in our campaigning.

We have to build deeper relationships with individual members that go beyond a commercial transaction. We need to do business in a way that touches people’s hearts.

So there’s plenty to go at and we should feel inspired and exhilarated by the challenge. As individual Co-ops, and as a movement, I think our time has come again if we can find the path to economic and emotional relevance.

Steve Murrells
Co-op Group CEO

Join the conversation! 38 Comments

  1. This is very thought provoking, after a break in my membership I am back and glad to see these aspects are better by discussed.

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  2. Shouldn’t you be looking at why your co-op staff don’t get paid breaks and try and stop so much shoplifting before you try and put the world to Rights

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    • Hi Dave, this is a concerning read, can you provide more detail? Thanks ^Scott

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    • Hi Paul, our colleagues should be taking all breaks they are entitled to. If you know someone who isn’t please advise them that they need to raise this immediately with their manager and with HR so it can be looked into. Regarding shoplifting we have a whole team who are dedicated to working with colleague on the ground so they are safe, so again if you know someone who doesn’t feel safe in their work place please get them to raise this with the Safe and Secure team. ^Catherine

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      • Head office does not know what goes on in the shops we only get an unpaid lunch break of half an hour. Tea break never been given one its all take from the co-op and nothing given back you are full of answers but never look in to the running of the stores for staff

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    • Coop group staff do get paid tea breaks. It is not practice anywhere that I know ofor to have paid lunch breaks.

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  3. I thought this was very interesting and quite hopeful, as I agree there does seem to be a groundswell of opinion which is changing.People see that the way everything has been organized in the past, from the top down,doesn’t bear relevance to our society today. However, I can’t help feeling it will take an awful lot to get those in power,and political power,to go along with this.More power to the Co-operative idea!

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  4. Great speel, BUT does it address the issues of the Co-op shops being EXPENSIVE, as a pensioner and living in Bristol I have a Tesco, Lidi, Aldi and the Co-op all within a mile to mile and a half of my home.
    Now being a widower and living alone on a fixed budget, I have to watch the pennies, and I can assure you that the Co-op is by far the most expensive of the 4 supermarkets. Each Monday I walk (partly for the exercise) around all 4 of them with my list and on a Tuesday I do my shopping and it always falls that both Lidi and Aldi are by far the cheapest. (except for the instore bakery, where the Co-op wins).

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    • Hi “Bartonhillbum”, Co-op Food have been working hard on their prices for over the past 18 months now and reducing them so that they offer every day value while supporting the local producers and farmers in the communities who supply us. Since committing to selling only 100% British meat 100% of the time our prices have remained the same. I can say however that our Co-op is not a discount store like the two you have mentioned, we are a convenience retailer. ^Catherine

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  5. In addition to my comment above, may I ask, if the Co-op is active in re-cycling it’s packaging WHY does it still used un-recyclable black plastic for it’s meat products.

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  6. Heartwarming , positive , detailed and encouraging resume of situation – more power to your elbow CEO…. Difficult times indeed but we must not lose faith in the concept of humane commerce.

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  7. Steve You’ve asked for a lively debate so I’ll give you one.

    There is zero chance of a large established bureaucracy like the Co-op Group creating radical change the way the pioneers did. It’s just not going to happen.

    No bureaucracy like the Co-op Group has the motivation to be radical pioneers.

    Even if you have visionaries at the top, and maybe we do, the “frozen middle” of senior managers with personal goals around pensions and careers will, perhaps unconsciously, conspire to maintain the equilibrium and will fear for the lifestyle their positions have led them to feel entitled to. With so much at stake in the status quo, they have strong incentives to resist change and play safe. “No-one ever got fired for buying IBM” became a cliché for a good reason.

    Recently a revolutionary airplane powered only by solar power completed a round the world trip. When asked why they weren’t being sponsored by an airline the co-founder said “Disruptive innovation doesn’t come from inside industries. It was not the people selling candles who invented the lightbulb. Even the best electric car does not come from the car industry.”

    The best hope for the Co-op is the legacy created by Richard Pennycook with the establishment of Co-op Digital. You have hired some remarkable talents there – let them do their work and be the disruptive innovators the Co-op needs.

    Read the rest of the article too – it’s full of good advice for you. http://www.wired.co.uk/article/bertrand-piccard-solar-impulse-future-travel

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  8. I agree with all that Steve has said as always the devil is in the detail ! However the introduction of the 5% dividend – credited when members purchase Co-operative Branded Goods and Services – is i feel an excellent start to tackling many of the issues covered in the statement by our Societies CEO . Our strength lies in the success of our Co-operative Business model . The more we can increase active Society membership to the actual benefits of being a member for example like the 5% dividend the more we can attract greater economic participation and grow our business for the mutual benefit off all.
    It sounds so easy . With more members and those members actually shopping at their local Co-op Store I feel it really is !!!
    My old Dad once told me son Success breeds Success and I always believed my old Dad told me .

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  9. Hi Steve, My answers marked with asterisks. ( You’re welcome)

    Are we still addressing the most important needs of our members? * No
    Are we serving the markets in which we trade in ways that are relevant and co-operatively distinctive enough? * No
    Are there new markets for us where the state or privately own business or PLCs are failing to provide a good response? *Yes
    Affordable housing for the young and social care for the elderly stand out as today’s pressing social needs. Should we be looking to enter that space? * There are hundreds of housing Co-ops – we could support them more strongly
    Or is that too ambitious? * No
    Would smaller local co-ops be better placed to do that in towns and cities across the country? * Some already do
    Or can we learn from the small-scale housing and social care co-ops that already exist and think through how to scale up their ideas to a national level? Perhaps Co-ops abroad have better answers to this than us. * I expect so
    And how do we attract a new generation of Co-op members? * Ask them
    We know that our current membership is made up of people mostly over the age of 40. We also suspect we’re not as ethnically diverse in our membership as a national retailer ought to be.
    Do we need a specific membership offer for different age groups and communities? *No
    Is our data good enough to allow us to do this? *No
    When we campaign are we being too safe? *Yes
    Are we afraid to make enemies? * Yes – Example in the response to Stop Funding Hate
    Does that reticence mean our long reputation for championing social change is now failing to cut through to the public? * Do you even need to ask ? Yes
    Do we look to grow organically or do we look for more creative expansion through franchise propositions? * You know you’re already doing both don’t you ?
    Is the way to create value for our members by expanding our wholesaling operation beyond other Co-ops to increase our purchasing power? *Yes. Duh!
    And are we thinking far enough ahead? * No
    Are we considering the major changes that are coming and that will radically alter our lives? Automation of jobs. Driverless cars. The internet of everything. * Only when someone does the thinking for you

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  10. Hi Steve

    Thank you for the opportunity.

    I think our starting point has to be getting shop staff to the point they are extolling the fact that they are treated with dignity and respect. Many surveys show that pay is not necessarily top of their list.

    Could we not look at ways of rewarding staff more? For example I complimented one on how she was recruiting members with the 5%+1%. She thanked me and said some staff don’t bother but it would be so nice to know how each of us was doing. We used to get it years ago now only the managers get it.

    We could give store or regional awards for the most recruited members or to those who have done something for a customer over and above the call of duty. And advertise their merit.

    Employee of the month or even year.

    Fund raising for charities.

    I suppose some of these are old hat but I am sure your team could come up with examples -better still – some new ideas for rewarding staff.

    I genuinely feel this should be our starting point making us head and shoulders above the rest of our competitors with one aim being that the Coop is the best food retailer to work for.

    I have raised this at Council.

    Nonetheless in terms of the commercial end of the business and your approachability, not to mention modern slavery etc you are doing a fantastic job. Keep it up!

    One last thought. The Coop supported a DVD on fracking, Gasland, which is a big issue for North Yorkshire right now was a great Road campaign supported by the Coop. The seminars which took place were not over political but raised the issue and gave a lot of food for thought. Perhaps we should look at this again.

    Thank you

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    • Hi Margaret, thankyou for your comment. I just wanted to comment back on the colleague recognition part as you may or may not know about the Being Co-op programme which has been in place for over a year now. Being Co-op is a programme which recognises colleagues who show one or all of the ways of BeingCo-op – Do what matters most, Be yourself, always, Show you care, Succeed together. You can find examples of colleagues Being Co-op here: http://coop.uk/2wJTO6U. As part of Being Co-op we’ve been trialling a new colleague recognition box which if colleagues enjoy, will be rolled out across the organisation. ^Catherine

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    • If you are talking about Food shops then you need to raise the disgraceful way that management and colleagues are treated. No days off, expected to work 60 hours per week regularly, late shifts then on again early in the morning, working 12 hours with no proper break. Bullying behaviour by area managers, no work life balance, a culture of intimidation and threats. Basically understaffed every day, old and inadequate systems and complete lack of support.

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      • I would like to second this. Co-Op may want to “save the world” but the reality is it is just another big organization built on oppressing & exploiting its work force. It really is quite shameful. The ruthless cut to store hours means shops are being run with the absolute bare minimum staffing levels. This is a no win situation for EVERYONE. Staff should be distributed to the busiest times of day. Sadly, this is not the reality. The busiest shifts are a friday night, saturday night & sunday morning. Because these are UNSOCIAL HOURS which the Co-Op will NOT pay extra for, nobody wants to work these shifts. It’s like pulling teeth, you’d think you’d asked staff to donate a kidney trying to get them to work these shifts. The consequence is that staff are clustered on sociable hours working patterns. There are too many staff on week DAYS (when footfall is lowest) & too few on the BUSY back shift & week ends. This results in sales opportunities being lost because the rate of replenishment cannot keep up with the rate of sales. Not to mention the ridiculously long queues that form. The “Two’s A Queue” policy fails miserably when you only have 2 staff in store.
        A milk spillage means one staff member has to mop it up whilst the remaining staff member has to struggle to serve alone. These situations happen all the time. I’ve seen customers dump baskets & storm out in frustration. Its effect is compounded because it’s busy & there are no staff, meaning customers patiently waiting in the ridiculously long queues witness the utter shambles & chaos & think, “Wow, I’m not shopping here again.”
        Nobody wins.

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  11. Very good analysis of the challenges that face co-operatives. “Are we afraid to make enemies?” I would say in some areas yes. The decision to continue advertising in extreme right-wing publications such as The Daily Mail and The Sun displays a certain degree of fear and willingness to fence-sit on important issues. I really think this is the wrong decision and an area where the Co-op could and should have taken the lead and set an example. Unfortunately, this could be interpreted by some as a tacit endorsement of those publications and what they stand for.

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    • I want to point out that I do feel things are moving in a positive direction, with the Co-op championing some wonderful causes and putting a huge amount into communities. However, I do see this as a huge shame and opportunity missed. It seems to me that the values of papers such as The Sun and Daily Mail are in complete contrast with The Co-op, which is why I find it odd to align with such publications for the sake of advertisement.

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    • Liam, sorry to burst your bubble but the Sun and the Daily Mail are the two best selling newspapers in the UK – hardly extreme, even of you do disagree with their viewpoint. Co-op is on strong ground with ethics, but getting involved with politics (which essentially the ‘stop funding hate campaign’ is about) is short sighted and has a slight whiff of fascism about it – that probably stings a little, but look up the dictionary definition.
      The Co-op makes its money in Daily Mail land – don’t shout too much about the Co-ops political leanings or it will go down like Lidl announcing their Liverpool stores will fund the Tories!

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  12. Steve..wow a big speech. Lots of love and aspirations in your leadership message. A well crafted verse from your communication team. I had a short burst of working for the co-op..I had big hopes that the co-op as an employer was an organisation I could align my co-op values. Sadly, what you say to the outside is not a reflection of what goes on in the inside of your organisation. The co-op has a long way to travel. Your are saying the right things..that’s inspiring to hear!! I left the co-op wondering how a brand and ethos had lost its way. Still…I have faith that..the co-op wants that authentic relationship with both customers and employees.

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  13. Great comments Steve I am a great believer in the Cooperative group and the business,I love talking to customers and believe that most colleagues do the same however as some staff do seem to have problems with breaks etc in some stores it might be worth mentioning to them that as in their contract the group encourage colleagues to join the Union those affected who feel unable to can tackle the problem through discussion for them.

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  14. I AM ALMOST IN TOTAL IN TOTAL AGGREEMENT WITH STEVE. FEW PEOPLE OUTSIDE THE COOPERATIVE MOVEMENT UNDERSTAND COOPERATION
    THE EDUCATION OF OUR CHILDREN DOES NOT GIVE THEM ANY INSIGHT TO THE ALTERNATVE THAT THE ROCHDALE PIONEERS BEQUEATHED US
    NOW IS AS GOOD A TIME AS NEVER BEFORE TO TAKE THE COOPERATIVE IDEALS FORWARD.
    JUST AS THE BREXIT DEBATE DEMONSTATES, EDUCATION AND CITIZENSHIP, WILL IN TIME ALLOW OUR YOUNG PEOPLE TO FORM AN OPINION BASED ON THE FACTS AND THE REALITY THE COOP HAS A IMPORTANT ROLE IN THIS BRAVE NEW WORLD.

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  15. Steve, YOU not someone below you really needs to get out there and start visiting the Funeral homes and Supermarkets that I am sad to report are staffed by colleagues who feel disheartened if not down right disgusted at the way they are treated by the Co Operative they work for.
    How do I know this because I am a frontline member of Co Op Funeralcare staff who has this week resigned my position because I am sick to death of the rhetoric that our top people are spouting whilst front line staff are being treated so badly

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    • Hi Nick Birt, Steve completely agree’s with you that senior leaders need to visit their colleagues ‘on the ground’. That’s why he has been visiting stores, depots and Funeral homes across the business. You can see an example here; http://coop.uk/2xiVULw. I’m positive that he will continue to do this at any given opportunity. Which Funeral home do you work in and would like Steve to visit?
      ^Sophie

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      • I Sophie I work at Co Op Funeralcare Letchworth Hertfordshire I work Monday through to Wednesday lunchtime my last day is the 04/10/17 and I would love to meet Steve

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  16. You always go on about customer service. Well you try and do a delivery top up the milk top up the bread serve customers mope up spillages keep an eye out for shoplifters do some plans wash the shelves down face up all with the bear minimum off staff . I think you should have a policy that if you work a night shift from 2 until late you should be paid more as it is always the same people who do them

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  17. CWS – stack ’em high and sell ’em cheap but with good service and standards. I hate giving my money to Amazon, Ebay and Paypal etc, but the prices are so cheap and the service is so good. They’ve kinda copied the Co-op model of the pioneers! They make no money, but they are after market domination over time via reinvestment of profits. They’re already moving into 1 hour delivery, groceries, driverless cars and drones, so they’re very much moving towards Co-op territory.
    Copy them, but keep it outside the Co-op world of bureaucracy and expensive consultants – run it like a start-up, keep costs low and they will come! Sadly, not going to happen though is it – management consultants with qualifications but no commercial / business skills, would look at it and shout ‘risk’, rather than see ‘opportunity’!

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#TheCoopWay, Business, Co-op leaders, Membership