Midcounties Co-op launched its home delivery service just a year ago, in response to the pandemic, and yet it has now fulfilled over 120,000 orders. As it marks the milestone, chief retail officer Rupert Newman tells The Grocer how it plans to hone the service to continue serving the vulnerable in the wake of the pandemic, and of the other challenges of serving communities through the crisis.

How have you managed demand for home deliveries?

Whilst a number of our competitors were increasing the capacity to deliver online, we had a slightly more localised issue where we had a number of our customers who were being asked to shield, and didn’t necessarily have the means of accessing online slots.

We were able to set up a localised, member-led service, where people could ring up the store and create a shopping list from 280 key lines, plus any seasonal products. And, broadly speaking, we weren’t just delivering it the next day, we were delivering within the same hour. One of the things we’ve learned from Covid is that our teams are resourceful, and you don’t need a high-powered picking system in a dark store somewhere to meet the needs of your customers and members. And 50% of those deliveries were done with volunteers.

How does it work?

We have a team who answer calls, talk to the customers and members and feeds those orders through. But the fulfilment, the delivery, and the picking of groceries is done by our store colleagues. We create some time in their day to be able to do that. And also some time in their day to be able to deliver those orders if our volunteers are unavailable.

You can overcomplicate these things. Our retail colleagues are smart and our store managers are highly engaged and they know how to do the right thing. Therefore, just putting a relatively simple but consistent process across the stores, people have been able to deliver with that.

For me, when you start bolting all kinds of complexity on to it, that’s when it becomes a little more difficult to manage. We’ve done 120,000 deliveries now. It’s about meeting the needs of the communities we trade in. 

Are deliveries here to stay? And how are you looking to adapt it?

Fundamentally, in a post-pandemic world, we want people getting out and walking to their local shop, having a conversation and engaging with us there. But we also appreciate that there are a group of people who may not be able to do that all the time, or might have times in their life where they’ve just had an operation or an illness where that’s not appropriate.

Therefore, what we’re looking to do is a create something more sustainable that we offer to our members for people at need. We will continue to use the framework we created through Covid but offer that to our members who can’t necessarily come to us on a daily basis and still want to shop with us, as well as broadening the call & collect service for those who want to travel to stores.

How has working with local suppliers helped during the pandemic?

We do a lot of work with local suppliers, which was a big plus for us during the pandemic. Most of food retail was challenged with the supply of certain goods, but we were able to work with, reach out, and satisfy our need with local suppliers and put products in front of our customers at a time when those products were scarce.

We’ve been doing this for a number of years. Therefore we had an existing infrastructure in place. We were able to build new relationships as part of the pandemic, but also grow some of the existing partnerships we had.

How were your food-to-go sales impacted?

We’ve got a mix of stores for different missions. Some of those are the heart of communities, some of those sit in town centres, and some sit on arterial roads where people commute. While we haven’t seen the same impact that some other retailers with largely city-based portfolios did, we have seen stores in town centres take a downturn, as there are fewer people going there, and there’s not the requirement to nip out at lunchtime. For us, overall food-to-go sales during the cold Covid period have been down about 40% to 44%.

But instead of trying to promote food to go to get people to buy it, we thought, if that’s not where people’s buying habits are right now, where are they? If they’re not buying sandwiches, what are they buying? People are cooking more at home so how do you recreate and provide better meal solutions for people who would usually eat at a restaurant once a week? Or how do you provide great recipe ideas for a family who are sitting down together in a way they wouldn’t previously?

Our focus wasn’t on trying to make food to go work harder, it was accepting that and switching our focus.

How have you dealt with rising tide of abuse and violence against shopworkers?

It has been a sad and uncomfortable reality that’s happened throughout the pandemic. We’ve had to put increased measures in place to support our colleagues. We’ve also supported Usdaw’s Freedom From Fear campaign and a change in legislation to make sure there are stiffer penalties in place for violence and abuse towards shopworkers.

But within the world of food retail, when you trade early morning to late at night, there has always been incidences and issues of abuse or violence, and that’s not acceptable. It never has been. We’ve always worked hard to support our colleagues and make sure they’re not a target or have to come to work in fear.

How have you continued to push the agenda on sustainability?

I think our customers, colleagues and members have had time to reflect over the past 12 months, and spent time thinking about who they buy from, where they buy from, and how those people source that product and treat their workers.

It has always been a core part of the co-operative movement to make sure we source ethically, but also that we treat the people that work for us or supply to us fairly.

We’ve just been voted Business of the Year and won the Social Sustainability & Community Development category at the Edie Sustainability Leaders Awards, for work including the 50 food banks we supported and the 30,000 hours of community volunteer work.

What have you learned throughout the crisis?

I have learnt that our frontline retail colleagues are remarkable. They are superheroes. 

Secondly, what I have seen is that you can create change, whether that be new ways in delivering to people’s front doors, or new ways of working and communicating with your teams. Some of the change that has come from the pandemic are things that we shouldn’t roll back on. There are things we have learned that mean we are far more agile, better in how we communicate to our teams, and we will carry that forward.

Finally, the power of community and co-operation. We’ve seen the best of our communities come together to support each other and create change that means the most at need are supported.