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People power: food co-operative challenges big supermarkets

16th February 2011
Eco-friendly chef Arthur Potts Dawson had a mission: to offer something different to the people than what the major supermarkets offer.
Disgusted by the amount of food he saw the supermarkets throw away, he wanted to start a different kind of supermarket, The People’s Supermarket.

Inspired by the Park Slope Food Coop in New York, Potts Dawson decided to start a business that offered local food to people at a low cost but still paid the farmers fair wages. It had to be about the people. With the help of former Marks & Spencer commercial executive Kate Bull, Potts Dawson is seeing his mission become a success.

"We’ve achieved so much in such a short time – in six months," Bull tells GreenWise. "The fact that we’ve got people who were unemployed working for us, the fact that we’ve got people who want to come and join us, the fact that we’ve got suppliers wanting to supply us, it’s just unbelievable."  

The People’s Supermarket opened last summer in Lamb’s Conduit St, London, with a different business model than anything the people of Bloomsbury had seen before. To offer people groceries at an affordable price, they had to figure out a way to keep the operations costs low. The solution was to have the members work as employees. Anyone can shop at the co-op, but those who become members are offered a 10 per cent discount on all products. Members pay a £25 fee to join and volunteer four hours at the shop every month.

"We don’t survive on grants. We don’t survive on Government hand outs," Bull says. "We survive on being us, and that’s what makes people who are involved with us and support us and work with us very proud."

One of The People’s Supermarket’s goals is to work as directly with suppliers as possible. However, one of the problems with going to individual farmers is that it would mean that individual vans would have to bring in supplies, which would contradict the store’s environmental aims.  

Supermarkets will sometimes reject a farmer’s entire crops. They must then dispose of them. Often, farmers will plough crops, such as root vegetables, back into the ground.

Recently, the People's Supermarket got a call from an apple farmer from Kent whose entire apple crop had been rejected. He offered it to the shop for only £40 pounds. The supermarket took a van to the farm and completely filled it.  

The People’s Supermarket has a kitchen in the shop, and when they brought in the apple crop, they made apple crumbles, pies, chutneys and juices with the ones they couldn’t sell.

"If it could be made with an apple, we made it," Bull says. "It took us about three weeks to get through all the apples."

Because they got the apples so cheap, they sold them for only 10 pence an apple.  

"We won’t raise the prices," Bull says.

The supermarket tries to buy its produce in season, buying fruits and vegetables from a wholesale market near Heathrow. The dairy comes from Coombe farm, and the meat comes from a collective of farmers in Devon.

The co-op also buys some of its goods from a local garden. It bring scraps from the kitchen to the garden so that they can be composted. The store has bought packets of salad tops for £1.60, which it then sells for £1.80.

"We make hardly any margin on it. It’s incredibly local, incredibly fresh," Bull says. "It’s almost like a circle. We give them their compost. In return, we buy from them beautiful products."

The People’s Supermarket typically offers three different options for most items. They will supply a cheap option, the most well known brand and one environmental, fair trade or organic product.

"We display all three on the shelf together. So you, as a consumer can then see whether or not it’s good value, read the ingredients easily across the back…the choice is yours," says Bull.

Fair prices
Another one of The People’s Supermarket’s goals is to offer its suppliers fair prices.  

"We very rarely argue prices down," Bull says. Only if they can find an option for significantly cheaper will they haggle for the price.

Potatoes sold by the co-op come from a supplier in Kent, and the supermarket purchases them for 15 pence a kilo. Tesco, on the other hand, only pays four pence a kilo, including the delivery, for the same potatoes.  

"The potato becomes worthless. You’re actually paying more in diesel. In that scenario, the food has no value, which is scary," Bull says. "Some of these farmers, they’re actually becoming the sweat-shop employees of the 21st century."

To keep prices down in the store, The People’s Supermarket has suppressed the prices on some of its goods, including milk. Additionally, tit has been purchasing blocks of butter and cheese from the diary farm and cutting them down to size and repackaging them in the shop, which saves roughly 20 per cent, according to Bull.

Members as owners
The members of the business are also part owners, so they are involved in the decisions the co-operative makes. They decided that they didn’t want to sell tobacco or alcohol. Bull said they discussed the financial benefits of selling the items, but the members decided that those are not the type of products they want in the shop. Any profit the store does make, the customers get to vote on what they want to do with the money.  

"Our suggestion to the members is that they would use it to increase their discount," Bull says. "However, that would be a members decision."

Since The People’s Supermarket doesn’t have money for advertising, it has relied heavily on social media to spread the word.

During their shifts, some of the members spend their time tweeting and Facebooking what’s going on at the supermarket, including what products are currently available.  

"It’s a very transparent, real conversation," Bull says. "What we’ve found is our greatest ambassadors are our members."

Channel 4 began a four part special on The People’s Supermarket two Sundays ago.

"What the television has allowed us to do is to access a far greater range of people who do have similar beliefs," Bull says. "It’s been tremendous. We’ve seen a huge cross section of people come in."

In the week after the first episode aired, The People’s Supermarket has seen a rapid increase in members. That week, it nearly hit 500 total members, with 66 people signing up online and another 30 or so in the store.  

"Our biggest day ever was on Monday," Bull says. The store took in £3,640 that Monday after the first episode, roughly 28 per cent more than usual. 

Since the supermarket is a co-operative, Bull says another can be opened anywhere, but it will be different depending on the community that it’s opened in.

"The aims could be the same, the mission values could be the same, the t-shirts could be the same, but the fact that you’ve got a whole group of people making it different, will make it different," Bull says. "But there’s no reason why people can’t open another People’s Supermarket."

Other 'People’s Supermarkets’ have open around the UK, including one in Reading and one in Manchester.

Bull says anyone who’s interested in opening a co-op like The People’s Supermarket should keep focused on what their mission is.  

"Our mission has always been to provide a community with good, healthy food and to work within that community. Therefore, everything we do comes back to that: are we doing that," she says. "Are we working for the community? Are we helping to provide better food? Then you can just re-question yourself every time you do anything."
"We’re trying to be sophisticated and professional, but also human," Bull says.

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