Innovative Retailers – The People’s Supermarket

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The Name: The People’s Supermarket

The Place: Lamb’s Conduit Street, London

The Story: A supermarket which is a co-operative, membership-directed, ethically run, anti- food waste haven founded by  Kate Bull, an ex-M&S executive and Arthur Potts Dawson, Mick Jagger’s nephew. Beloved of David Cameron and his big society. Not quite so beloved of Camden Council rates department who have been involved in a long running to and fro court process over whether the People’s Supermarket should qualify for discounted rates as a charity organisation or whether it should continue paying full commercial rent.
How many supermarkets can really say they are for the people.

Where are we at with that? The People’s Supermarket actually lost that legal battle and are paying full rates but they did get the government to change the advice they give to councils so that they are now advised to let co-operatives pay lesser rates.

They just want to get back to the lentils right? Well, it’s a bit less lentils and quinoa than you might think. Bull is a seasoned supermarket executive who worked in store development, as a regional manager and abroad for M&S. She says her commercial and business skills are all totally relevant to this job too. So, you can buy lots of branded goods in this ethical supermarket – Heinz baked beans, Angel Delight, and cover your ears children, even evil Pampers.

Now I’m confused: Basically this shop is on a mission to use the supermarket business model to bring together a community around food. They have to stock branded goods otherwise people will not use the shop as a supermarket – i.e. do their whole shop there. And as Bull says they can’t stock, for example, locally sourced milk because they are in central London.

Cue Nisa Today’s: Absolutely. Last year’s deal with Nisa to provide the branded goods needed could be seen as a dilution of values but you won’t find anyone at the People’s Supermarket saying that. It’s a win-win for them they say. They get the best value from the wholesaler but as Nisa is also a co-operative they share some parts of their ethos. Bull is very definite that “we will never be a NISA branded store” but one third of their products are branded and they will use the NISA deal as a platform to support the opening of more stores.

So not much is local after all? Au contraire. A lot of the fresh veg comes from 500 metres away from various city growing projects. A growing plan is going to be decided upon to co-ordinate the suppliers so gluts are avoided. They use a large nursery off the M25 but will use the small local places for herbs and okra etcetera.

Right, down to basics, is it making any money? Well now there’s a question. Obviously it is a not-for-profit, but even so Bull says it is touch-and-go all the time on whether it can stay open. Everything they use (fridges, seats, tables) was donated in the beginning of the venture. They still have no external investment and couldn’t even open a bank account for six months. She is very frustrated by the lack of vision of banks and claims that if she were a large just for-profit company she could walk into a bank and get money immediately. The People’s Supermarket does not have even an overdraft. Instead when they need to do something they go to their members. They raised £7,000 in a week from them at the end of 2011.

And these members are very rich then? There are 1,139 of them who have paid a £25 membership fee. And 70% of them are active – that is they donate four hours of their time to the venture every month and in return get a discount of 10% on goods in the shop. 75% of members have walking distance post codes and 50% of them do shifts in the shop. The others give their expertise in different ways. They even have members in Berlin and Thailand who will clearly never come in to the shop but who pay the membership fee which is then used to pay for a local unemployed person who cannot afford the membership fee to join and work in the shop.

And who are the big spenders? There are a lot of offices in the area and Great Ormond Street Hospital is opposite. This lot pour in every day to buy leftovers. Back in November 2011 The People’s Supermarket won an electric car. In a new departure this is now to be seen whizzing around Bloomsbury delivering the leftover range to lots of corporate clients.

Pardon? Most supermarkets throw away vast amounts of food. Not here. Every morning from scratch they make main meals, cakes and snacks to sell from the produce that is not sellable on the shelf anymore. They shift 1,000 of these a week and employ four chefs. It’s their biggest selling line, followed by organic milk, bacon from a small farm in Devon and – wait for it – Coca Cola!

What’s next for them? There is big interest from Cardiff, Exeter and various other cities in opening a similar venture but as Bull points out you do need a lot of money to set up a supermarket. Cue Hackney Council and Viridian Housing who have asked the management team to take over (for free) a totally vast site opposite Homerton station. A 10-week consultation led to 500 people pledging support for the idea which will also house a creche and cafe – selling the leftover range of course. Initially Bull walked off but she’s decided to give it a go. They just need £1 million and are using a ‘Brick by Brick’ fundraising campaign to get things going. Bull says they need to maximise the Olympics and must trade in some form by the beginning of June 2012. But it’s a difficult site and anyone with a spare kitchen should get in touch pronto!
Plenty of work to do before this one opens.

Localism rocks then: Indeed it does. Bull tells a story that the People’s Supermarket is the only shop open until 10pm on the street which had suffered from some alcohol driven anti social behaviour. The members decided not to stock any cheap drink, and the police tell them that since they opened the crime rates have actually dropped. Now, what other supermarket in the country can say that?

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