The achievements of the East of England Co-operative Society are as diverse as its businesses. Over the past year, the society has rebranded, purchased a new HQ and cut carrier bag use in its food stores by 84%
since introducing a charge for them. But what is also noteworthy is what East of England hasn't done.
Unlike many of its peers, which have adopted The Co-operative Group's new fascia , it has resolved to stick to its own - for now, at least. "We're the biggest independent retailer in East Anglia and our customers really appreciate our independence - that's why our fascia works so well," reasons CEO Richard Samson as he shows The Grocer around its 11,500 sq ft Manningtree store in Essex. "The Co-operative branding is clearly well received, but I want to keep an eye on its progress before committing to the fascia.
He is clearly in no hurry and no wonder judging by the society's latest set of annual results, announced on Monday. It reported a profit increase of 10.1% to £11.4m, while like-for-like food sales were up 5.7%. Much of its success, says Samson, is down to the multimillon pound redevelopment programme of its 135-food store estate embarked upon last year.
Initially focusing on its 18 larger supermarkets, it has so far redeveloped seven, most recently Framlingham, Felixstowe and Elmswell. Work has now started on a £1.3m refurbishment in Brightlingsea and a £1.5m upgrade in Leiston, both of which will soon boast new graphics, fixtures, deli counters and enlarged food ranges.
Samson's decision not to adopt The Co-operative Group fascia certainly doesn't seem to have harmed the Manningtree store, which was redeveloped last year. On the weekday morning we visit it is bustling with shoppers of all ages.
And they're not just top-up shopping, says Samson. Some 15% of the store's turnover is generated by fresh produce. Local products stocked under the Tastes of Anglia banner have also been a hit, sales of products from a local bakery alone generating an impressive £1m of sales a year.
To capitalise on the popularity of local foods, the society has introduced food-mile shelf barkers with the supplier's name and the distance in miles from the store.
The co-op's innovative approach is equally evident elsewhere. When it trialled a charge for carrier bags a year ago, Samson noticed men were reluctant to use bags for life because they were "too flowery", so he introduced different bag designs that would appeal to both men and women.
Samson is also keen to combat the threat of Tesco - which is seeking planning permission for a 30,000 sq ft store nearby - so he has applied for permission to extend the Manningtree store by 3,000 sq ft. He plans to use the extra space to open a second-storey café to make the most of its position on the banks of the River Orwell.
With innovation like this, and a resurgent co-operative movement, expect many more headlines to come out of this little corner of England.