One of the first things new reporters on this magazine are taught (usually by me, with an accompanying sigh) is that there is no such thing as The Co-op. The thing is, I tell them, there are lots of different co-operative societies out there, they are all independent of each other, running their own retail strategies, although (and this bit always gets them) their buying and ranging is controlled by the CRTG (the what?) and they sell the same own label (Co-op) products, and while their stores are badged as Co-ops, the moniker can take different forms (which is why stores on the Isle of Wight are very different to those in the north west) and has all sorts of sub-brands (Welcome, Late Shop and so on).
By now, I can see my reporters' eyes glazing over. That's why we have a lengthy section in our magazine's style sheet on Co-ops where we try to explain all this. Interestingly, we only need a single sentence to explain Tesco's multi-format, customer-centric retail strategy. Which says a lot, I think. Anyway, our best reporters will usually digest my Co-op lecture and then ask one simple question: why is it so complicated?
The reason is largely historical, of course. But it was because they allowed such complexity to remain that the co-ops found themselves in real trouble by the mid-1990s. Then things started to change for the better as the movement got fully behind the CRTG buying group, the leading societies refocused their strategies around neighbourhood retailing and many co-ops merged to create businesses with much more clout.
Arguably, though, it has not been enough. Too much complexity remains, which is creating duplication, adding unnecessary overheads and costs, making it less efficient than rivals and, occasionally, less focused.
As we report in our feature on page 36, the societies will soon decide whether they should unite behind a single brand identity. The idea being tested is quite funky. But, at the end of the day, it is only a fascia above the shop. The real issue has to do with what lies behind that brand and involves a much bigger question: should the societies merge into one organisation that really would be The Co-op? It cannot happen overnight, but United Co-operatives boss Peter Marks thinks that's the best way to go. And I would agree - although I would miss giving my Co-op lecture to new reporters.
>>The co-operative movement is mired in complexity