Old Kent Road vaccination centre 2 (1)

Supermarkets’ status as a lynchpin in the communities they serve was further highlighted during the pandemic

The Covid pandemic shone a spotlight on inequalities across the UK and the disproportionate impact on mental health, food insecurity and other aspects of wellbeing in more deprived groups and communities. Traditionally seen as the responsibility of health, local government and the third sector, many business operations also have the potential to affect wellbeing. Yet the relationship between supermarket community-oriented actions and their impact is not yet well understood.

In this context, we have been researching UK supermarket community-oriented support to pinpoint positive social impact and support investment decisions as well as the development of effective community partnerships.

Supermarkets have a strong track record of societal contributions, from the original Rochdale Pioneers in 1844 – the founders of the co-operative movement who thought customers should be treated with respect, share profits, and have a say in the business – to more recent ideas of ‘shared value’, where businesses recognise that positive social activity can have a positive commercial impact.

Supermarkets have ‘anchor positioning’ in the communities they serve, with many opportunities daily to interact face to face with the public, both as customers and employees. This lynchpin status in neighbourhoods was further highlighted during the pandemic, but their impact on local wellbeing is not well understood.

Contributions to communities are largely organised through CSR strategies, and new findings set to be published in the spring by the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership indicate that supermarkets support communities through charity partnerships, store-based activities, and targeted programmes. Typical examples include health awareness, charity campaigns, and food redistribution through national partnerships with the Trussell Trust and FareShare; funding and fundraising for local groups; and donations of goods and space in store for groups to meet.

Another highly embedded local aspect of support is provided by the store ‘community champion’ or equivalent. As well as brokering access to organisational resources (funding, goods, spaces), these staff members are helping to strengthen community resources through networking activities. Early findings from the research highlight the complexity of the ‘pathways’ that impact on community wellbeing. Aspects such as the time invested in outreach activities is likely to be important in securing good foundations by developing awareness, insights, relationships and trust between stores, communities and wider networks and infrastructure for wellbeing.

During the first 10 months of the pandemic, a huge number of new community-related actions emerged targeting new or increased vulnerabilities. Rapid mobilisation of support ensued, including deliveries for people shielding, dedicated shopping times for NHS and vulnerable people, acceptance of free school meal vouchers and top-up fruit and vegetables for low-income families. The existing food redistribution partnerships and customer donations became vital, added to which were some examples of individual stores making arrangements with local food banks or food distribution ‘hubs’.

Awareness raising of organisations such as the National Emergencies Trust followed, as did new partnerships with key charities targeting age or mental health. Locally, access to grants was sped up to cope with escalating demand. More innovative actions were also apparent, such as befriending programmes for older adults who were shielding, shopping cards enabling community volunteers to shop for vulnerable customers and digital platforms to link volunteers with shielding customers.

The vaccine rollout was supported with some store car parks doubling as vaccination centres, and in-store pharmacies increasing their offer. Other operational changes were introduced to ease the impact on local people, employees and small local businesses, such as improved flexibility for suppliers, rent adjustments for in-store tenants, and bonuses for some frontline staff.

There may always be tensions between the aspirations and reality of what CSR delivers for communities, but the Covid crisis appeared to stimulate a more agile response to local needs – more relaxed funding criteria and ad hoc initiatives often grounded in relationships and local understanding. While food redistribution and national charity fundraising remain headline CSR activities, in the long term, supermarkets’ local community initiatives have the potential to become more responsive and integral supporters of resilience and wellbeing.