Stock Your Own Shelf: London Co-op Concept Gets Personal

People's Supermarket Relies on Members as Volunteers, but Could It Signal Shift for Retail?

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LONDON ( -- The shop is shabby and the shelves half empty, but the staff is happy and helpful at People's Supermarket, a neighborhood store in Bloomsbury, central London.

The glassy-eyed stare of the typical British checkout operator is missing -- these workers, clad in bright yellow T-shirts, are not paid drones but members of a groundbreaking co-operative who work for free in return for a 10% discount on their own shopping.

By the people: Arthur Potts Dawson founded the supermarket.
By the people: Arthur Potts Dawson founded the supermarket.
The People's Supermarket is a much-watched co-op retail concept that opened last summer. The first episode of a documentary series about the supermarket had just been shown, resulting in the store's busiest day since it opened, and stocks were yet to be replenished.

Dan Painter has lived in the area all his life and remembers when the shop used to be a Tesco. "We've had a few teething problems -- the kind of thing you expect when you have a load of people running a supermarket who've never done it before," he said. "There's a big delivery out back that needs putting on the shelves."

Another shopper confirms that the fruit and vegetable section is usually packed with an exotic mix of produce.

The workforce reflects the shop's diverse clientele, with young men working alongside pensioners and housewives. The work is similarly varied; staff can visit suppliers and make key purchasing decisions, gaining business experience along with their discounts.

The idea is born of the philosophy that retailers can no longer get away with simply telling people what to buy.

"Just about every communication we have with clients, we talk about 'community.' Everyone wants more of a relationship -- we call it 'retail 2.0,'" said Tim Greenhalgh, chief creative officer at WPP design consultancy Fitch Worldwide, who recently wrote a report called "Future Retail."

"People are ready for a change," said Arthur Potts Dawson, the chef and entrepreneur who founded the People's Supermarket. "This is a new way to get cheap food, and by using a volunteer workforce we save on staff costs, so we can put the profits back into the business and make the food even more affordable."

Its ethos echoes that of one of Britain's most successful retailers, the 71-year-old John Lewis Partnership, famous for customer service and its "never knowingly undersold" promise. The department-store chain and supermarkets are owned by 70,000 employees, all of whom share in its profit.

Despite its age, John Lewis has become the hottest brand on High Street, with Christmas store sales up 9% and online sales up 42%, because it has tapped into consumers' need for a relationship with retailers based on mutual respect and communication.

In Paris, a joint venture between two French retail giants -- Relay news agents and the Casino grocery chain -- is buying into the trend by launching a new chain called Chez Jean, a cross between a café, news agent and deli. The uncluttered stores encourage a sense of community among customers, who ideally stop for coffee and a paper in the morning, pop back for lunch and then pick up ingredients for dinner at home.

Malcolm Pinkerton, a senior analyst at Verdict, said retailers have to engage consumers personally. "It's easier for smaller retailers, but larger ones can achieve this through social media. Most, though, are still figuring it out -- some send out mundane tweets but others, like Waitrose [owned by John Lewis], do it well with recipe ideas, updates on what's in store and the best deals."

Giants such as Tesco are aware of the need for stores to engage with consumers and be part of local communities, but, Mr. Greenhalgh said, they're doing little more than paying lip service to the idea. In response to questions on the issue, the Tesco press office provided a link to a site that emphasizes Tesco's role as a provider of employment. Britain's biggest retailer also runs the "Little Seedlings" club, which teaches children about the environment, and donates 1% of pretax profit to charity.

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