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The Problem With The People’s Supermarket

February 27, 2011

Photo Credit: mermaid99 on Flickr

Fans of the blog will know that Tom and I are both quite intrigued by The People’s Supermarket. Even after this week’s last instalment of The People’s Supermarket I still think the idea has a lot of potential, and clearly a fair bit of backing behind it. Furthermore, there are good examples across the US of similar social enterprises being very successful.

So, is such a supermarket not made for the London population, or are the problems rooted deeper within the organisational and management structure of The People’s Supermarket that have stopped it from reaching its potential?

I’m going to go with the latter. Arthur’s passion and work ethic are clearly evident, but I think the whole thing falls down through his general lack of leadership acumen. Here is what I would consider to be the core problems:

1) Organisational Structure – As far as I can see, Arthur is the boss and everyone else is just 4 hour-a-month volunteers. There is no hierarchical structure in between. Someone could walk into that store tomorrow with a business degree and 10 years experience of managing supermarkets and they would be given the same responsibility as another totally inexperienced volunteer. Or worse, I could walk in tomorrow with no idea what the whole thing is about and I’d be at exactly the same level as a committed worker who has been there 6 months and never missed a shift.
This causes 3 further problems:
1.1) Terrible for the moral of the committed and hard working members – they are not getting paid so incentives have to be pretty innovative, and growing levels of power would be just one way.
1.2) Wasted talent – Everyone is treated the same and given the same duties regardless of their preferences or ability to succeed in certain areas.
1.3) What would happen if (God forbid) Arthur got ill or wanted a holiday? There are no structures in place to allow him to do this and the whole thing would crumble.

2) Four Hour Shifts – Brilliant, fine, perfect. I can happily spare four hours a month, but where did this number come from? Was it simply plucked from the air? Different people have different levels of ‘disposable time’ available and different levels of passion or enthusiasm for the idea, so why would you limit everyone to four hours? Furthermore, until he reached 500 members, four hours wasn’t enough hours to keep the store open without government training scheme workers.
The other problem with four hour shifts is, it’s not enough time for your core management team. For this place to run effectively it needs to run like a business, so have HR, logistics, retail, marketing and shop floor supervisory staff. And I can pretty much guarantee with the current climate as it is; I could find you hundreds of students who would jump at the chance for such senior experience and a chance to put their degree to practice.

3) Communication – This seemed to be an area of real concern. I personally believe the key to any successful organisation is good communication and The People’s Supermarket really falls down in this area. There were no communication structures in place other than their monthly meeting. If Arthur wanted to recruit a small team to do anything he had to spend hours on the phone ringing around each person individually.
Arthur, there is technology around to help you do this now. Set up a Facebook group or a blog or a emailing list. Write it once and let everyone else do all the contribution, and that will only add to the team spirit too!

4) Team Work/ Team Cohesion – Surely such a social enterprise has to be built around strong social relationships. All these people have similar mindsets so the chances are they will get on like a house on fire. I can’t even work out how this was missing, but if there was a strong team ethic then commitment levels would go up and general productivity would go up.

5) Arthur’s Heart – As much as he’s got a great set of values, if he wants the social enterprise to succeed then sometimes it’s going to have to be run like a business. He can’t help everyone and if he’s going to make a financial loss for doing something then he’d better have a damn good reason to do it.

6) Market Research – You don’t have to be a genius to work out to have any form of successful product or service it’s fundamental that you get the research right, which is why the big supermarkets invest so much into loyalty (research) cards. The products selected for his store, much like the four hour policy, seem to just be randomly plucked from the air.

7) Paper Based Systems – Everything seemed to be done by paper. Enough said.

8 ) Un-innovative marketing – it seemed all of the marketing was simply Arthur out on the street handing out flyers. Why not get some of the 500 members together and come up with a more creative marketing campaign and then ask them to implement it?

9) Finance, grants, investors, donations… – Surely there must be funding available out there that he isn’t aware of? Surely one of the 500 members has an interest in finance? Utilise their skills and get them working on your business plans and forecasts.

In conclusion, it all feel like ‘too little too late’. His aims were far too often short term rather than focusing on the long term solutions that would have made the place more sustainable. I hope that he picks up some of this along the way and this place is successful because I really like the idea of it.

Photo Credit: mermaid99 on Flickr

Here is some food I ate today:

10.15 Poached Egg on Toast, followed by some leftover Xmas M&M’s and coffee.
13.55 Boots Meal Deal – Mexican Flatbread, KitKat Chunky and bite of Laura’s Twirl.
18.05 Slice of Pizza from yesterday.
20.35 Steak Pie with Mange Tout, Carrots and Broccoli.

And Finally…

That must be our longest post yet!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 28, 2011 6:13 pm

    We love criticism. It helps us grow our business. Also thank you so much for your goodwill. (and I love your blog btw). But there are a couple of things that as a co-founder of The People’s Supermarket I need to clarify.

    Re Finance, grants, investors, donations… there is finance out there but it tends to be a) very expensive, b) time-consuming for volunteers to sit down and apply for and c) often runs counter to the ownership structure of a co-operative.

    Re ‘too little too late’. I feel sure you’ll know that to start a cash-intensive/acquisitive business from *nothing* – especially one that needs to show banking covenant strength with which to acquire long-term property leases – and to start one that’s also not reliant on external grant funding is a slow, painful process. Start-ups are under-capitalized in general. Ethical ventures that seek to rely upon earned revenue are under special pressure. Answer: work short-term, until cashflow management is stable and secure.

    Have you joined our Facebook group, almost 7000 strong? Be great if you did:!/thepeoplessupermarket

    Also how about you and Tom setting up your own version of TPS in Plymouth or Coventry?

  2. February 28, 2011 6:21 pm

    Thanks for commenting. I’m going to leave Lee to respond to most of that, unless he’s still to distraught about the Carling Cup.

    But in response to us setting up our own TPS… I’m out of work in a few months and Lee graduates soon… seems plausible!

  3. leef352 permalink*
    February 28, 2011 9:38 pm

    Hi David,
    Thanks for getting in touch and having considered my comments, maybe I was a bit brash. The comments were based entirely on the Channel 4 programme, and I completely understand that they can be very selective in what they edit and what we end up seeing.

    So in terms of my comments about 4 hour shifts and choosing your products, the tv programme doesn’t really show how these decisions were made. Also, what was the rush to open so quickly? Was it to do with acquiring the building as it seems that otherwise a lot of the promotion, research and planning could have been done before hand?

    I realise you have to think short time too and opening today is much more important than filling up shifts for two weeks time. But at the same time, handing down responsibility for members to take ownership of their ideas (such as the marketing campaigns) would mean your time could be spent doing more important things – surely? Again the Channel 4 show makes it look like Arthur was in charge of doing everything whilst others stood about waiting for something to do. That’s what my leadership priorities comments were about.

    I’ve had a chance to look at your Facebook page and it looks great, exactly what I meant. 7000 fans is impressive too, we’ve joined and I hope you might follow back and share the One Chicken Nugget story.

    Finally, I don’t know if you have ever heard of SIFE, but if not it’s all about students working on projects like this. It is a global scheme that has over 40,000 students involved in the UK. If you go into any university I’m sure they’ll be happy to introduce you or I have contact details for the UK programme directors if you’re interested. I’m sure these students would be more than happy to get involved with bid writing, marketing campaigns, business forecasting, web design, communication strategies, team building…

    I really hope TPS succeeds and as I’ve said, I think its got great potential. If I move to London next year I’ll be signing on…

  4. February 28, 2011 10:55 pm

    Lee, thanks for this.

    Your q: 4 hour shifts and choosing your products, the tv programme doesn’t really show how these decisions were made…

    Me: The 4 hour shift pattern was inspired by the model that Arthur, Kate Wickers-Bull and me and others were inspired by – namely, the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, New York. Four hours is also about right, since it’s just about enough time for a freelancer/self-employed person with shaky commitments and super-fragile income to forsake, either by working in-store or offering time in kind. also, sounds manageable for someone looking for work or retired.

    Product choice: this was initially the responsibility of an experienced and *fantastic* product person/member called Amanda. also Kate Wickes-Bull, co-founder, currently Store Manager and veteran of Marks & Spencer for 20years. every members meeting there is a discussion on products and the product mix is changing as a result. It’s tricky: some people want Coco Pops, others want organic, bottle-fed cans of baked beans. The objective in the end is that TPS re products becomes what a co-op is, collective purchasing.

    Your q: what was the rush to open so quickly?

    Me: The store was opened quickly because we had won the opportunity to acquire the lease on Lamb’s Conduit Street and needed to ‘seize the moment’. and we wanted to test the offer to the public. Arthur, Kate, Me and an army of others had also been working on business plans for the thick end of a year and a half and thought, hell, we’ll just do it. all of the front end time was spent on numbers, business plans, chasing properties and market research. there was a danger of over-think. better to get on with it.

    Forgive the long essay. Great you’re interested. Also I was a bit sensitive to your criticisms, probably too sensitive! All of us, especially Arthur (in your direct firing line) and Kate Wickes-Bull have worked tirelessly to establish a platform for others to assume, grow, change (and yes, criticize too). *needs to grow up a bit!* 🙂

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