East of England Co-op

Greener than ever

Since the mid-1800s, the East of England Co-op has been passionate about more than just food; it has been determined to encourage community and hospitality as one of the largest consumer co-operatives in the UK

Serving local communities across Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex since 1861, East of England Co-op now has over 220 branches across the region, offering food retail and Post Office services, among its wide range of businesses. When we last spoke with Roger Grosvenor, the Joint CEO, the co-operative was stabilizing itself from the consequences of Covid-19.

Now, having dedicated 50 years of his career to the business, Roger is approaching his retirement in March of 2022, and reflects on his time with the business. “It was a difficult decision to conclude that it’s time to retire after half a century with the Co-operative Movement. When I first joined, my aspiration was to rise to Food Store Manager, and, by some miracle, I ended up being Joint CEO of, in my view, one of the finest co-operatives in the UK.”

Serving the community
From Roger’s many years of experience, he notes the evolution of technology, and how it has helped improve the company’s efficiency. “What continues to be very clear is our way of doing business and our reliance on IT. Without it, performance and economies of scale could never have been reached to the level they are at now. Take the pricing of goods for example; when I started, product was priced with a stamp and indelible ink, and could only be removed for price changes with spirit and a cloth. We then moved to price tickets on a roll, followed by a price gun, and eventually to shelf edge labels and scanning. We are now in the process of looking to introduce electronic shelf edge labels.”

Considering the challenges that the company has had to endure during its lifetime, Roger is proud of how its team has continuously pulled together to keep the business growing and serving the community, especially in light of Covid-19. “We have not let the pandemic stifle our ambitions with regards to expansion across our retail and property businesses, and our investment in technology. We’ve seen the performance across our family of businesses vary significantly during 2021, with performance affected by lockdowns, and Covid-19 measures.

“However, for food retailing, we have had a golden year with an increase in sales by 10.3 percent compared to 2019. In our funeral department, we saw numbers increase, while the value per funeral dropped as families and loved ones were unable to give the send-off they would have wanted due to the restrictions in place.”

Enthusiasm and gratitude
As a result of shoppers staying at home, fuel sales also fell significantly. The company’s travel business, which came to a halt, was also impacted by Covid-19, alongside its masonry factory, holiday lets and events business. “The decision was taken to halt our store refurbishment program to ensure stores remained open to provide a service to the communities, especially with so many people working from home and restricted travelling. This resulted in less customer visits to food stores, but significantly higher basket spend. Our Snappy Shopper home delivery service proved a crucial lifeline to those in self-isolation. Stores with self-scanning tills helped incredibly to reduce queues and support social distancing, seeing a 41-percent participation across the 86 stores with this service. Our investment property portfolio, which extends to over 500 commercial and residential properties across East Anglia, has been resilient in the face of the pandemic. Although some of our commercial tenants have suffered through the pandemic, we have supported them to ensure their longer-term viability,” Roger shares.

We move on to the topic of current market challenges, which include labor shortages and high costs. To this, Roger responds with enthusiasm and gratitude towards the company’s progress and resilience to overcome these obstacles. “We’ve been most fortunate in having a committed and loyal workforce and have not suffered the same challenges as many retailers across the UK. Support mechanisms and rewards were put in place to acknowledge our colleague’s commitment.”

Aside from the announcement of stepping down from his leadership position, Roger shares with us that exciting developments are underway to keep East of England Co-op a dependable community name. “Our annual member’s meeting will take place in May 2022. We’ll be running a ‘hybrid’ event, which will allow members to attend in person or remotely. During the event, we will review our financial performance, and share with members the impact we’ve had against our community themes of food justice, mental health and wellbeing and community action. We’ll have a particular focus on the work done to support foodbanks, and the investment we’ve made in community groups through our Community Cares Fund.”

Future plans
Tying in with this, the East of England Co-op recently opened two new food stores. One was in Chesterwell, Colchester on December 3rd, while the other was launched in East Harling, Norfolk ten days later. “There are further plans in 2022 to open circa seven new food stores across East Anglia. With regard to the rest of the family of businesses across the estate, we constantly review our locations to ensure we remain relevant to the aspirations of the long-term viability of our co-op. We completed a small housing development just outside Ipswich with all units let within days of completion. Similarly, the redevelopment of our former department store in Colchester was completed in June and all 24 apartments let within just eight weeks. Loungers now anchor the ground floor commercial space having opened in November and we believe will act as a draw for additional occupiers going into 2022. Several other residential and commercial development schemes have been progressed during 2021 and are expected to come to fruition during 2022/23.”

In addition to its new expansions, the business is also excited about its pledge to be carbon neutral by 2030. Here’s how the East of England Co-op plans to make this happen: “By replacing older refrigeration, fitting LED lighting and using on-site renewable solar energy, amongst other measures, we’ve achieved a 50 percent reduction in carbon emissions over the past ten years, exceeding the original 30 percent target,” he explains.

Strong legacy
This is a journey of two parts: by 2025, the East of England Co-op aims to have replaced all company cars with plug-in hybrid or electric models, and expanded the number of electric vehicle charging points to a further 40 communities. It is also working on a program of solar panel installations to increase on-site renewable energy to at least 370,000 kWh by 2025, which equates to around one percent of its current electricity needs, and then by a further five percent by 2030. “Through robust monitoring and reporting, increased investment, a focus on carbon reduction, and specifying energy efficient designs for all our new buildings and properties, we’ll be well on track to achieving our pledge. We’ve adopted six of the seventeen United Nations’ development goals, which are now embedded in our Co-op’s strategy as we feel these are the areas that we can have a direct impact on,” Roger informs us.

As March quickly approaches, Roger hopes that the legacy he leaves behind him will be one that inspires continuous growth of the company, and a culture that is dedicated to unity and trust. “I have always seen myself in an Executive role as being able to be of support to those looking after their own departments, assisting them in achieving the highest level they can. My role is to support and remove the roadblocks, and I hope my colleagues will use the same ethos.

“I know that the company will emerge from the pandemic stronger, and continue to provide secure employment, inclusivity for all colleagues, and a growing service to the communities within East Anglia.

“I have seen many changes throughout my career, and they have all felt to be at pace, but none more so than now. It has always been about change and adapting to thrive, and hopefully, we have done this since our formation, and will continue to do so,” he concludes.