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.