The People’s supermarket: A communitarian innovation?

February 9, 2011

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.

Grigor McClelland: A man for our times

February 2, 2011

On April 8th 2011, Manchester Business School celebrates the career and contribution to business and management education its first director, Professor Grigor McClelland. His was a remarkable leadership journey with lessons that are proving relevent to the challenges facing business and the global economy in the first decades of the 21st century

The celebrations will include a conference with review papers written by distinguished figures providing perspectives on major issues for executives and business scholars.

My own involvement in the story began in early 1974. I was on the point of becoming appointed a research fellow. Grigor had been appointed first Director of the School some years earlier. In the spirit of those days, an informal meeting had been arranged to confirm the arrangements.

Mutual interests of two Geordies?

I was ushered into Grigor’s office, where I was welcomed in a charming and (dare I say it?) a rather patrician manner. We found mutual interests in entrepreneurship, innovation and retail product development. I began to wonder whether I had misjudged the situation and I still had a hurdle to cross before my appointment would be ratified. Was this really some kind of low-key interview? If it was, it ended amicably and he escorted me the door. Yes, he added cheerfully. I would enjoy working at Manchester Business School. And, he added, mistaking my residual Welsh accent somewhat, it would be good to have a fellow Geordie on the staff.

Although I did not know it at the time, Grigor had already been an influential figure in shaping the future of leadership training in the U.K. and instrumental in the formation of two major business schools, at London and Manchester. This was at a time when one authority had been quoted as saying that Business schools are about as British as drum majorettes, and that in fields where they believe success depends primarily on experience and instinct, the British only turn to teaching as a last resort.

University and business tensions

Leaders of industry were largely recruited from two sources, an elite group with public school education, and a group rising through the ranks. Both groups were suspicious of formal training in management, and of the dangers of such training being delivered through a University system. Grigor McClelland arguably helped in a significant way in challenging these assumptions, although it is fair to say that the Universities were doubtful of the place of formal management education as part of the curriculum, and that the tensions have never been fully resolved a decade into the 21st century.

The ethical leader

His stance on ethical issues was revealed in an account reported by the BBC in 2003

One of north-east England’s leading businessman is handing back his CBE as a protest against the war on Iraq. Grigor McClelland, former managing director of Laws Stores, Tyneside’s biggest family-owned food store, took the stand against Tony Blair’s decision to send in the troops.

“Now that my country has joined an attack on Iraq in, what I believe, is a breach of international law, I no longer feel able to retain the honour given to me. I hope this will be seen as a statement of the very deep concerns I have.”

A Newcastle Quaker, Mr McClelland was a conscientious objector and first saw service with the Friends Ambulance Unit in the Middle East, working as a stretcher bearer and ambulance driver.

Post script

This review was prepared as part of the McClelland 50 year celebrations by editor of Leaders we deserve web site, Professor Tudor Rickards who is a member of the steering group for the events. We invite alumni, current and former staff and students of MBS to contact us via the web-page set up for the conference.