Working for society’s benefit

In spite of the immense challenges posed to it in 2020, the East of England Co-operative Society has continued to stay true to its values, doing all that it can for the benefit of its customers, its colleagues and wider society

For the East of England Co-operative Society (East of England Co-op) – the fourth largest consumer co-operative in the UK – life prior to the emergence of Covid-19 was one defined by positive growth across its family of businesses, and by continuous investment. “As had been the case for our entire existence to that point, the core focus of our co-op was on providing the same high quality of service across every department, with the customer always coming first,” begins Joint CEO, Roger Grosvenor.

“As soon as Covid-19 hit – and this must have been the same for every business in the country – it became extremely challenging due to the ever-changing situation,” he continues. “The first area of focus was the protection of colleagues and customers, and significant investment was made in making all of our premises Covid-19 safe. We stopped our refurbishment programme within our food stores, to ensure stores stayed trading to maintain that local lifeline for those in lockdown. With the food division, we saw the number of transactions fall, but shopping baskets increase to significant levels, and while the first lockdown saw panic buying, thereafter with the other two lockdowns it became a steadier pattern.

“Our co-op was also mindful to look after its tenants in a sympathetic way and to not only abide by the Government’s lawful requirements, but to also take time to understand individual circumstances. To remove risk from our head office at Wherstead Park, it was immediately decided just prior to the first lockdown in March 2020, that all colleagues would work from home with a few minor exceptions. We have maintained this stance throughout and this will not be reviewed until sometime in the future.”

For Roger, among the biggest positives of the past year has been the way the East of England Co-op’s customers embraced the Covid-19 restrictions, often in good humor, and how its colleagues across all divisions – but especially food, funeral and travel – have continuously gone the extra mile to help said customers. “We attempted to, as things settled down, get back to the ‘new normal’, but clearly the focus has been on keeping both colleagues and customers safe,” he affirms. “To ensure we stayed Covid-19 secure, we set up an audit team to visit our branches to assist, advise and help with measures that went far beyond the requirements set. An example of this is when, on 26th July 2020 face coverings become mandatory for customers, we also made it mandatory for colleagues, delivering a clear message that ‘we’re all in this together’.”

Change and adapt
Covid-19 control measures introduced across the business include, the installing of screens at till points, enhanced in-branch cleaning regimes, and applying social distancing using signs and floor markings. East of England Co-op has also provided customers with the necessary sanitizing stations (baskets wipes etc.), and every colleague with a pocket hand sanitizer and extra breaks.

“In recognition of the difficulties they faced, all colleagues received a double weeks’ pay in April 2020 and from the outset, those on the front line received a free lunch every day until June. Also, from April colleagues have been give double their normal discount and at Christmas they received £110 of shopping vouchers,” Roger details. “Furthermore, to support colleagues, a Covid-19 helpline and email address was set up, and we have also been working with a well-being organisation. Once the furlough scheme came into play, those that were placed on to that scheme had the 80 per cent topped up to provide a full salary, and this was also the case for those that were shielding due to being clinically extremely vulnerable.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has driven a number of changes throughout the industry and within East of England Co-op. Among the things that have not changed – in fact they may even have been boosted –is the growing trend of customers demanding quality, locally sourced food, and our Co-op’s efforts throughout the community.

Meeting the challenge
In the case of the former, demand for locally sourced food and drink has soared in recent months, with sales of East of England Co-op’s ‘Sourced Locally’ range up £1.1 million compared to the previous year. “Local food augmented the range when difficulties were experienced during the year with sales increasing into double figures,” Roger states. “One of the most surprising group of purchases were eggs, bacon, mushrooms and sausages, suggesting that the good old English breakfast was playing its part in keeping communities fed. When eggs were in short supply, our local egg suppliers played their part, and we saw little difference in the availability in store. Indeed, all of our local suppliers really stood up to the challenge and filled the void across a multitude of categories.”

East of England Co-op was also cited last year by The Grocer Gold Awards 2020, being nominated in the Supply Chain Initiative of the Year category in recognition of its ongoing achievements in supporting local food and drink producers. The body expressed particular praise for its partnership with Thomas Ridley Foodservice (Thomas Ridley). “The Society was looking for a local supply chain provider to provide a cost neutral solution that would also reduce food miles, and Thomas Ridley fitted the bill, especially as they were located in Bury St Edmunds,” Roger adds. “There needed to be flexibility, and also the ability to provide an enhanced availability across our network of stores, and this partnership worked well due to the efforts made by our local suppliers, but more importantly Justin Godfrey, Group Managing Director at Thomas Ridley.”

Community actions
In regards to East of England Co-op’s actions on behalf of local communities, a key decision was taken at the start of the pandemic to suspend a number of its funding streams, and instead create what is the East of England Co-op Community Cares Fund, to help local people and organisations to adapt and enhance their services in-light of Covid-19. Roger notes: “Our initial pot of £230,000 was quickly added to by our generous members who have diverted over £139,000 of their dividend to the fund. To date, we have donated over £270,000 from this fund to local good causes.

“Through the fund, we’ve been able to support a number of projects. As well as smaller funding donations, we provided a number of larger grants, with a focus on foodbanks and food poverty, supporting children and young people impacted by domestic abuse, as well as unpaid carers of all ages. To allow us to continue this valuable support, we have taken the decision to continue the Community Cares Fund, directing the majority of our funding through this channel.”

On the subject of foodbanks, the East of England’s have been under enormous pressure as a result of the pandemic. In June 2020, as part of its ongoing dialogue with its supported foodbanks, the East of England Co-op brought them together – virtually – for its second foodbanks summit so that it could better understand the pressures they were under and how best it could help them.

“What was interesting and heart-warming to note at that meeting, was that many of the foodbanks who took part reported significant rises in the amount of food people were donating during lockdown, however this had posed its own challenges as they were having to manage the increase in deliveries while losing volunteers due to shielding and logistical issues, and ensuring food was distributed on time before its ‘use by’ date,” Roger notes. “Acknowledging the issues they were facing with storage, we donated £22,500 worth of store vouchers to 24 local foodbanks so they could buy the items they specifically needed, and as reserves depleted over the school holidays, we ran a six-week donation drive across our stores. Thanks to our amazing colleagues and generous members and customers, we collected 4.7 tons of food items.

“As a way of generating ongoing financial support for foodbanks we have introduced our foodbank donation gift card which customers can buy to give as a present. The gift card, which can be bought in all 122 of our Food stores, costs £5 and 100 per cent of the money goes to the foodbank linked to the store where it was purchased. We launched the card just before Christmas and to date we have sold 1370, resulting in a donation of £6850 so far.”

Food poverty focus
In September 2020, the East of England Co-op also joined forces with Manchester United star Marcus Rashford in signing up to the Child Food Poverty Task Force to support the call for the Government to increase the value of Healthy Start vouchers from £3.10 to £4.25, which it has since agreed to do from April 2021. Furthermore, in November 2020, it brought together representatives from foodbanks and other charities, community groups and local authorities to discuss the issue of food poverty. “During the two-day conference,” Roger adds, “we heard many stories of resilience and creativity as groups and individuals rallied to ensure people in need had access to healthy and nutritious food. As a co-operative, we believe in the power of working together and were really pleased to see groups sharing information and connections. The issue is not going to go away and the importance of coordinating efforts to tackle food poverty going forward was a clear message that came through discussions. We hope to facilitate a second conference this year.”

Shopping upgrades
The latter weeks of 2020 also saw the East of England Co-op introducing new features across its business, including the launch of its Snappy Shopper app and commencing a programme to introduce self-service checkouts to its stores. “Existing as we do in an ever-changing environment, we realised that we needed an online shopping and delivery service if our co-op was to remain relevant in the convenience market,” Roger reveals. “Our co-op had been talking to Snappy Shopper for two years, but, as with all things it is about timing and the Covid-19 crisis galvanized us to agree a contract and to launch our online offer within six weeks. It was launched on 7th December 2020 with 25 hub stores, and achieved an average of 400 deliveries a day within four weeks. This is growing significantly as currently we only provide circa 60 per cent coverage of our trading area, but this is to be added to in March of this year. The point of difference with Snappy Shopper is that from the time of order, you can potentially receive your delivery in as little as 30 minutes.

“December also saw our co-op begin its investment of over £2.5 million to introduce self-service checkouts to 86 sites, with a target of achieving a 40 per cent split between self-service till transactions to the standard customer service points. This is to provide increased customer service and to assist with productivity. The target for the complete roll out is early 2021.”

Staff well-being
Looking ahead to the rest of this year, Roger notes that the highest priority right now for East of England Co-op is for it to survive as a profitable business in the next six-to-12 months, mindful of the impact that Covid-19 has had on colleagues, especially those that are working from home and live on their own. “Therefore,” he stresses, “we are especially focusing on the well-being of colleagues, their safety and others that come into contact with us on a daily basis, and this includes customers.

“At the same time, we will continue to invest in our business, and this includes the development of IT based projects, pursuing opportunities within our property portfolio and looking at additional stores. Just recently, on the 31st January 2021, East of England Co-op took ownership of a petrol filling station in Framlingham, Suffolk to add to its portfolio. The redevelopment of our landmark premises in Colchester town center is also nearing completion and this will provide restaurants, shops and apartments. Despite the pandemic, we also have firm interest from two restaurant operators signaling positive intentions for 2021 and beyond.”

In a final comment, Roger also takes the chance to reflect on what he has seen and learn over the last 12 months. “My experience, and that of colleagues within the business, is that the vast majority of the public have acted in a most sensible and understanding way when visiting our branches, or being assisted over the phone, or unfortunately using our funeral services. Therefore, I want to take this opportunity to thank both the general public and my colleagues for everything they have done, and continue to do.”

www.eastofengland.coop