I am a co-founder of SCOOP The Sustainable Cooperative, a food systems business that redesigns grocery shopping around the community and zero waste.
Over the past three years since we opened our doors we have been hit with multiple crises and thereby pressure to migrate online. It seems like the logical transition.
Aside from three weeks during the first lockdown we have maintained the importance of not giving in to go online. We have been endearingly called “the most inconvenient supermarket” and there is some logic to it.
What are the benefits to being inconvenienced and why are we in such a strong position when our customer is happy to do a lot of the work and is willing to stand around? First I wish to explore convenience, a “concept” that is idolised and considered critical for success, yet is not well understood.
Convenience means, “being able to proceed with something without difficulty” but it’s often understood as “achieving the end result fastest”. Covid exposed the small size of the home delivery market, leaving many people waiting for food for a couple of days. Investment in the home delivery infrastructure happened almost immediately, with Point Of Sale companies emerging to capture their piece of the rapidly emerging market.
“Are food prices internalising these costly delivery services?”
Home delivery at the click of a button, as quickly as possible, seems to be the main event, but who is paying for it? This service costs money, and was expected to take 20 years to develop. Food prices are going up and up, and whilst stocks for home delivery are increasing in value, I wonder if food prices are internalising these costly services.
Technology companies championing convenience such as Ocado and Amazon, Deliveroo and other rapid convenience companies know that it’s not about profit margins, but about transactions. The value is driven by numbers of transactions creating wealth generation over time for the stock owners.
The investments into the convenience offering are so huge that the only real chance of success is winning the majority of the market share.
This sector is trading on the commodity of convenience. Seeing convenience as a commodity and not a consumer benefit starts to open up the question of who the commodity benefits or harms.
Emeritus Professor of Food Policy at City University Tim Lang asks us to be critical of market signals such as this. Yet the market is pumping, and that tiny wedge of the food system that was left open in which customers could act, is being sought after and hedged. We are left tied to our computer, free to be forgetful and fully serviced right to our door.
“In two days we had a delivery service – but we missed the people”
During the first lockdown of Covid we were offered zero transaction fees to hop on board a local POS app, that has been subsequently bought by our local postal service.
We were not offered help packing or distributing or selling all of our stock, just access to a market we already had.
Our Facebook traffic increased by 900 percent and in two days we were offering our own delivering service using Google docs and emails.
In the three weeks of delivery we reached 1,000 homes, covering 45 square miles. Every item was available and went straight into a circular packaging system. We increased our turnover by 100 per cent but we were unable to maintain this as staff costs were too high and people’s energy was wearing thin.
We missed the people. Our main strategy going forward was to identify the differing needs of consumers and address them. Everyone had different needs even in Covid.
“For many, shopping with us is the only time they will interact with people”
We still packed for some people, and provided quiet time shopping for others and over that period focused on cleanliness, strong communication with our customers. We held regular board meetings assessing risk and identifying best practice for the shop. We have maintained our monthly income and kept offline. We believe fundamentally in the value of interaction over food.
It is here I want to open up the human rights angle. Have you ever thought about a person engaging with the convenience commodity – when social engagement is a problem for the system?
Or when the need for education takes time yet time is not what’s available. For many people, our shop is the only time they will interact with people or have adult conversations.
The shop is full of interactions but what is their value? For me it is the chance to explain what is in the food and empower customers to feel like they can make the right choices. It gives the opportunity to build trust and talk about the human rights issues in certain brands in a way that doesn’t cause disembedded behaviours. It means people can talk to each other about recipes, new ingredients and healthy decisions.
These interactions have endless values from human rights, social capacity and behaviour change. Community groups have formed around certain health conditions and sustainability objectives, insights are shared, and learnings are distributed through the community.
“The consumer is overwhelmed by biased information – they need time to talk at point of sale”
We as an organisation get to keep on top of the changing parameters of sustainability. Customers act as a feedback loop bringing questions and insights from their own research. We are a shop that is continually adapting, making us viable and well positioned for the future. It is clear that we have shifted the remit from convenience to care.
As these false market signals for convenience force many smaller food shops and producers online it exposes them to the Jeff Bezos strategy “your margin is my opportunity”.
Yet when your margin is embedded in care within a community and values the potential of human interaction the margin becomes unreachable. Asking the question “do you have time for me?” is the first step to valuing these moments.
We know that the food system is complicated and the consumer is overwhelmed by biased information. Time created at the point of sale offers much needed space to talk. If convenience is about the ease of doing something, and we are creating the space for people to learn to shop and eat in a way that protects the planet, that has nothing to do with being quick.
We know that we need to sell more food, in line with our objectives to support local farmers, but how we grow will be guided by the reality that any convenience gifted to the consumer will be impossible to get back.
We would rather grow by reflecting what’s best for the producer and farmer. How we grow will be down to some creative thinking.