Snuggling up to Amazon

Why, someone in the audience wanted to know, is there a row of Amazon lockers in their local coop shop?

I was at an area meeting yesterday of the Co-operative Group, the place where ordinary members (you know, those of us with the yellow membership cards who collectively own this coop of ours) can have our say and ask questions of senior(ish) Co-operative Group elected members and staff.

The answer that came back from the platform is that the Amazon link-up is a pilot, a way of exploring whether people who pick up their Amazon deliveries after work may perhaps also stay to pick up, say, a Truly Irresistible coop ready-meal (and, who knows, some premium-priced sun-dried tomatoes, guacamole and stuffed olives) for their evening meal.

…although, to be fair, the members of the platform did look embarrassed when the question was posed.  There is, I’m afraid, no plausible answer to the question of why the Co-op Group is snuggling up to a global giant with a propensity for clever tax avoidance schemes and a reputation for being anti-union in its employment practices.

Talking of Amazon, are you thinking of buying a book soon?  There’s always Liverpool’s venerable workers’ cooperative bookshop News from Nowhere. They do mail order.

When cooperatives get complicated: do multi-stakeholder coops work?

Can coops work as coops if they have different classes of membership?

Could for example a retail cooperative be structured with two types of membership, one open to its customers and the other to its workers?

Or could a workers’ cooperative invite its supporters to invest in the business and give these investors membership rights?

The answer to both these questions is yes.  Mondragon’s retail arm Eroski in Spain provides a classic example of the first arrangement (customers and workers each have equal stakes in the coop’s governance) and for a forthcoming UK example we can turn to the Midlands cooperative which after its merger with Anglia is proposing to introduce a formal role for employee representatives on its board.

And there’s a good example of the second arrangement in the way that Ethical Consumer magazine has restructured itself, moving from being a traditional workers coop into one which also offers membership to its supporter-investors.

The issues around what are called multi-stakeholder coops are the theme of a piece I have contributed to the Guardian’s social enterprise site, posted at the end of last week. I’m pleased to see it is already attracting some feedback.

Multi-stakeholder coops are not in fact a new idea.  I’ve recently been doing a little amateur research into a nineteenth century producer cooperative in the town where I live where, as well as the workers, local cooperative societies also had ownership rights.  And of course if you look at the present-day governance arrangements for the Co-operative Group you’ll see that it too has representation from the remaining independent cooperative societies on its Board.  In this sense, it isn’t a 100% bona-fide consumer-owned cooperative – it’s a hybrid.

These sorts of arrangements generally seem to work adequately.  There may perhaps be potential conflicts of interest between the different classes of member, but methods seem to be found in practice to ensure that any tensions are creative rather then destructive.

But here’s the really big question:  what if one of the classes of stakeholder is made up of external investors with no particular interest in the cooperative except as a source of profit?  Can coops successfully be structured with investors as members?  Or when it comes to operating genuine cooperative businesses are they heading towards the exit door?

This is a philosophical question with immediate practical relevance, given what is about to happen to the Co-op Bank.  So more soon on this issue.  And please feel free to leave your own thoughts.

That 10% student discount at the Co-op

The Co-op Group has introduced a 10% discount for students on their food (and, it seems, drink) purchases.  Good idea,  students need all the help they can get these days.  And good idea, too, to introduce a new generation of people to the idea of the consumer cooperative movement. Except…

“Don’t talk to me about the 10% discount”, said the NUS Extra card-carrying student in our household yesterday.  She has been trying to claim her discount four times over the past few days, with a success rate so far of 50%.  It has not been easy.  Each time she’s arrived at the till the authorisation card has had to be found from the office at the far end of the store, the supervisor has had to be summonsed, and the queue of (increasingly impatient) other customers has built up behind.  On Thursday, she took pity on the queue and walked away without the 10%.  And yesterday the supervisor told her that the discount wasn’t available as she had already proffered her Co-op membership card.  (Really? I find this heard to believe. I will see what I can find out).

We ask a lot of our coops.  We expect them to be ethical, we expect them to sell good quality produce at good prices, and we hope that they treat their staff at least as fairly as the competition.  But we also legitimately expect them to run their businesses effectively and efficiently.

Should I mention the Co-op own-brand Red Leicester, complete with a large £2 sticker on the pack, which was in my basket last week.  At the till, it rang through at £2.05.  Oh well, what’s fivepence?