Central England Co-operative is one of the largest independent retail societies in the UK, with over 1.5 million members.

Besides strong trading figures, which included a 9.2% increase in like-for-like food sales over Christmas, the Society has created over 1.5 million meals a year for people in need, in partnership with Fareshare Midlands.

The group has also invested millions in local communities via a programme of regeneration, creating dozens of new jobs by opening seven new stores and refurbishing another 25.

Debbie Robinson, chief executive of Central England Co-operative, tells Grocery Trader how Central England Co-op got involved in helping communities during Covid-19 and what the Society is doing to protect colleagues from violence.

Tell us a bit about your own background – where else did you work before your current position?

My career has been spent in retail, built up over nearly 40 years in the sector with an array of retailers such as Co-op Group, Marks & Spencer, WHSmith and other smaller independents. My directorships for food retailers have specialised in store innovation, brand strategy and global development, and in 2019 I joined the Society from SPAR where I had been UK Managing Director since 2011.

Joining Central England Co-op was a really great opportunity for me to become part of an organisation that makes a real impact to its communities. It has also allowed me to work with a really great team to establish a collective purpose, ‘Creating a sustainable Society for all.’

How would you sum up Central England Co-op’s history?

Like all Co-ops, our story began in 1844 when a group of Lancastrians set up the Rochdale Pioneers Society, a co-operative movement which was to spread across the country.

Central England Co-operative is the product of mergers and transfers of engagement of nearly 70 societies and we now employ around 7,400 people across 400 trading outlets. Our trading footprint covers sixteen counties extending from Huddersfield down to Cambridgeshire, and the West Midlands to Norfolk.

Today, Central England Co-operative is one of the largest independent retail societies in the UK.

How many retail members does the Society have?

We have over one and a half million members in total, and a smaller subset of active members. Our mission is to grow these numbers so more can benefit from economic participation in our Society, as part of a strong, co-operative working model.

What are Central England Co-op’s latest sales and profit figures?

The Society’s performance was strong over the key Christmas trading period which saw a 9.2% increase in like-for-like food sales. Our small community stores in particular stood out and traded really well. Our plan included a number of new promotions and sales initiatives, one of which was donating 5% of sales from our Co-op Truly Irresistible range to FareShare. Our customers really supported this and helped create 524,000 meals for families in need. Stock availability and recovery from Christmas was strong and New Year’s Eve saw solid year on year growth. Trading so far this year continues to be positive, and our end of year figures will be announced in April.

What factors drove the Society’s performance?

Safety has and always will continue to be our first priority. Focus has been continually placed on providing our members, customers and communities with access to everything they need in a safe and secure environment. This has included measures such as an upgrade to touchless hand sanitiser stations at the front of our stores, over three million pieces of PPE for colleagues and the installation of over 1,000 plastic screens, as well as using all our communication channels to help customers and members to shop safely.

We also wanted to make sure that we could help our members, customers and communities enjoy Christmas, despite the varying restrictions in place. We launched our ‘Goodwill to all’ Christmas campaign’ and offered our best-ever range of products, ensuring that stock was in our stores early and making sure availability was strong throughout.

And, finally, the incredible efforts of our colleagues, and the support and continued loyalty from our members and customers, especially in these difficult times, really did play a major part.

How did Central England Co-op get involved in helping communities during Covid-19?

Our pioneering work with Fareshare Midlands has helped create over 1.5 million meals a year for people in need. This was boosted by the donation of over £130,000 from the Irresistible campaign I mentioned earlier. Thank you to our members and customers for helping us achieve this.

We have invested millions in our local communities through our continued regeneration programme, creating dozens of new jobs by opening seven new stores and revamping 25 more.

A total of 102 local good causes have shared out £155,000 from our Community Dividend Fund.

We donated over 350,000 items of food to our food bank partners, creating over 100,000 meals.

We launched pioneering schemes with local councils to identify vulnerable people and provide them access to vital food and essentials. This has already helped over 4,000 people and their families.

Recent challenges such as the pandemic and other downward pressures on communities mean that now is the right time for co-operation to take the lead in this rapidly changing environment.

What is the Society doing to protect colleagues from violence?

Our colleagues are key workers who have been risking their lives daily to keep their communities going. What pains me is that on top of this risk, we have also seen an increase in appalling levels of abuse and violence towards our colleagues. We joined forces with over 200 MPs to campaign for the Government to urgently address shopworker safety and food justice. The Government must implement a long term, sustainable solution to combat hunger whilst maintaining dignity and self-respect for those requiring support, and shopworkers should receive the same standing in law as other frontline keyworkers. The union, Usdaw, raised a petition, supported by the Society, which reached over 100,000 signatures and has forced the Government to debate this issue in Parliament. This is not just a Central England Co-op problem, it is an industry-wide problem, and we won’t stop until the law protects our frontline teams in the same way that it protects emergency workers.

What plans does the Society have to roll out new technology such as self-scan checkouts?

This year, we will be rolling out twenty new stores and regenerating a further sixty-one to make sure that our communities have greater accessibility to our goods and services and a safer, quicker way to shop. During the pandemic, we have been able to roll out a range of new channels to market including a Click and Collect service in over forty stores and a premium home delivery service via two mobile apps across fifty-six stores. Plans are in place to roll out these initiatives at new and regenerated sites during 2021, alongside other developments such as increasing the number of self-scan checkouts and continuing our Scan and Go trial.


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