The People’s supermarket: A communitarian innovation?

Tudor Rickards

The People’s Supermarket, as televised on Channel 4, appears to be a social innovation offering a communitarian local alternative to the international retail giants. But there is more to this project than meets the eye

The People’s supermarket exists as a physical entity in London, with two entrepreneurial founders and a group of local members. It also exists as a Channel 4 television series. It can be said to exist as a visionary dream with social and communitarian values.

Over a million people watched the TV launch of the People’s Supermarket. This is sort of publicity most entrepreneurs can only dream about for a new venture. As I watched [February 2011] I had trouble getting my head around what I was seeing. Is this whole thing a creature of the media? A little more research and I discover even more publicity for the project in a recent [23rd January 2011] Guardian/Observer article.

The People’s Supermarket is giving it a go. Set up by Arthur Potts Dawson, who was behind London’s environmentally sound, award-winning Acornhouse restaurant, the mission statement is “for the people, by the people” which in practice means a not-for-profit co-op. Pay a £25 membership fee and sign up for a four-hour shift once a month and you become a part owner, have a say in how it’s run and receive a 10% discount on your shopping. The store itself, in London’s Lamb’s Conduit street, opened on 1 June [2010]

So what’s going on?

The initial fund-raising event involved sixty people lobbing up top-dollar prices for a special dinner cooked by a celebrity chef. That bit I understand. It’s a classic fund-raiser much loved by politicians. The creative edge was food ‘obtained’ from discarded stuff acquired by volunteers and discarded by the major supermarkets (but that’s another old media story, isn’t it?). The diners got their few minutes of TV exposure. Health worries were reassuringly addressed (they had begun to worry me, anyway).

By the end of the episode, the critical elements of the business model had become clearer. The success of the enterprise depends, pretty much as the Guardian indicated, on whether the community membership and volunteers will go on supporting the idea, and whether the products will generate footfall and satisfactory financials.

A bit of a mash up?

While the TV mockumentary would like to preserve the story line, information in today’s multi-media environment means that we can experience a bit of a mash-up. The Retail Gazette reported:

Kate Bull, the former Marks & Spencer commercial executive and co-founder of The People’s Supermarket alongside chef Arthur Potts Dawson, told Retail Gazette: “Average spend per person has grown from £3 to £5 in recent months. “On a Saturday – our busiest day – this has grown to just under £10.” The evidence suggests that the store is drawing a small percentage of locals away from the top grocers at weekends.


What happens next?

I just have a feeling there will be a few crisis points in the mini-series. Viewers will share the roller-coaster as Arthur, Kate and chums experience the pains and pleasures, the highs and lows of becoming involved in creating social reality. It is likely that the future of the venture will remain unresolved.

Maybe inferences will be drawn regarding David Cameron’s vision of The Big society. Or perhaps comparisons will be made with communitarian dreams such as that of the famous Mondragon community venture in the Basque region of Spain, or Ricardo Semler’s Brazilian vision.

Stop Press

By March 2011 the project had become a political football. The publicity had included a visit from Prime Minister David Cameron. But Labour-controlled Camden borough council had moved to claim unpaid rates of £33,000.


The Grigor McClelland Conference

This post was prepared as part of the celebrations planned for The Grigor McClelland Conference to be held at Manchester Business School, Friday April 8th 2011.

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7 Responses to The People’s supermarket: A communitarian innovation?

  1. Fernando Gimenez says:

    Interesting case! In Brazil we have had, in the past, some cases of co-op stores managed by workers of an organization> But, nothing like that. I will share this post with a friend at Aliança Empreendedora, a ngo tha fosters microentrepreneurship among poor people. I think this experience could be more appropiate for this kind of consumer. Let’s see how he reacts. Lastly, I’m afraid Semler’s company has changed in the last decade.

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Gerbrand Bas, Tudor Rickards. Tudor Rickards said: The People’s supermarket: A communitarian innovation?: http://t.co/KUt3nfp Channel 4 mini-series reviewed. [...]

  3. Observer says:

    The People’s Supermarket is merely a media vehicle to promote Mr Potts-Dawson in his quest to become the new Jamie Oliver, which he is not. It has nothing to do with the community. If it were actually to do with the community, then the real local community, as opposed to the false community members that were brought in from far afield corners of London, would have been encouraged to play more of an active role right from the start. Anyone who thinks that it is anything other than a reputation enhancement exercise for one individual is mistaken.

  4. Tudor says:

    So whereas I have suspicions, Observer is in no doubt.

    It seems a bit more complicated to me. Studies of leaders with a charismatic style (Mr P-D for example)may believe they and their vision are serving the community. We can test out the story accepting the other complication of its representation through the media (Alan Sugar says he’s not really like his role in The Apprentice).

  5. Vectorgrl says:

    If you do a bit of trawling on the internet, you begin to see that Mr Potts Dawson is not trying to be another Jamie Oliver. He has actually been working on this idea for quite a few years, after being inspired by a similar (and incredibly successful) set up in New York.

    Why do people have to be so negative? – *nudges Observer* – Claiming to understand the “real” motives behind someone’s thinking. Slamming a person’s character without actually getting to know them first is a poor quality in anyone.

    The New York version, The Park Slope Food Corp, is able to offer higher discounts (40 %) and a wider range of produce purely because they have more members (I think I read its about 16,000??) and its been opened for a long time.

    The Peoples Supermarket is not even a year old yet, but it is working, and hopefully, with all the publicity the Channel 4 program is generating, will get fully established soon.

    We’re in a recession. Farmers/producers/everyday people do not need to be ripped off by food giants anymore than we already have been. They’re killing off our local farmer’s livelihoods and squeezing people’s pockets harder each year as their own profits increase at a ridiculous rate.

    I’m grateful that we’re being shown a way to actually take a stand. If The People’s Market showed up in my town, I would sign up for it today.

  6. David Barrie says:

    Thanks for writing about The People’s Supermarket. I am one of its co-founders. Last June I wrote a background briefing paper on our mission and origins which tells the story of where we came from – and how the television is just that, a TV series – while we are an ethically driven commercial enterprise, structured as an Industrial & Provident Society. Also, you might find it interesting to take a look at our Members Handbook.

  7. Tudor says:

    Dear David

    Thank you for this contribution. I am grateful, and hope to encourage others to take a look at what you are doing. It’s likely that my (MBA) students will be studying this as a business case over the next six months or so.

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