Survival and the Customer Voice at the Co-op

call to actionNow I understand the rationale behind the questions in thesurvey the Co-op Chief Executive (now ex-) Euan Sutherland got sent out, which was the subject of an earlier blog. Many of the questions were about the relationships the organisation had with other organisations and the community at large. He was trying to remould the Co-op into an organisation that reflected the views of its users/customers and not just its members. Members can of course be users but they are not enough to sustain the business who needs customers including the ones who do not give a stuff for the intricacies and organisational links of the Co-operative Movement. So get the customer constituency on your side. How does that work?


Management who feel that internal concerns and ways of doing are frustrating the way they want to do their job can try to leapfrog the stifling embrace of their company’s guard -dog python- entrenched internal institutional attitudes – in search of a new source of  legitimacy – customers themselves. They seek to rely on the primacy of that external voice to overcome resistance and inertia internally. With one consultative bound, they hope to be free to run the business in the way they want.


But it does not work like that. Customers are not in the board room. Their behaviour takes time to make itself manifest. Markets move very fast and are easily fragmented. Customers are fickle and transfer their loyalties for reasons that they do not share with suppliers. It is very difficult to prove for example that customer numbers or repeat purchase frequency are declining for specific and identifiable reasons. They are not easily recruited to abstract causes.

The questionnaire sent round asked questions about voluntary work in the community – what has that got to do with the price and quality of carrots? Euan Sutherland had presumably realised that he was dealing with an inner core of members/ideologues – Co-op shoppers perhaps, but too few to constitute a viable customer base unless supplemented by the ideologically unattached.  While those who got the questionnaire might have been bewildered as to the purpose behind it and scratched their head over the ‘right’ answers, the active and politically engaged membership and managers understood Mr Sutherland’s game of leapfrog at once.


They stitched him up in very short order. Leak his salary – “Undefiled and Pure Co-op at mercy of sleazy rich Fat Cat” – and then make sure that he was fatally weakened by leaking the resignation letter before the Board had a chance to debate it. Customers had absolutely no say. Their views count for nothing in this internal struggle on who runs the show. Customer hands are always too far from the levers of power. Also they – or only a small minority – will not stop shopping at the Co-op because of rows on the Board. They will do so if there is no compelling reason for them as consumers to choose the Co-op over Lidl, Aldi, Morrisons, Tesco, Sainsbury. The Rochdale Pioneers did offer a very good reason to shop with them apart from membership – unadulterated food and better, cheaper food than could be bought with an employer’s vouchers.  They were in touch with customer needs. A Board pre-occupied with understanding how the intentions of the founders translate in modern times into the relationships the Co-op has with the Labour or any other party, will not be focusing on those customer needs, thereby neglecting a business which seems now perilously close to going bust, making the ideological struggle redundant. No point then in issuing a questionnaire headed “Tell Us Why You Miss Us”.



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