So farewell People’s Supermarket…

Posted on December 12, 2013

It was a great idea while it lasted. Or was it? Oxford’s People’s Supermarket (TPS)  which opened with great fanfare in July 2102  on boho Cowley Road, closed at the end of November. I’m almost embarrassed to say (but several people have recently reminded me) that at the time it opened I forecast it wouldn’t survive to see 2014.  Rare indeed is it for my predictions to be so accurate and I’m sorry for those who put so much effort into it.

So what went wrong? The warning signs were there from the very first meting in the Methodist Church Hall on Cowley Road in Spring 2012. The presentation to a large audience was not about the unique offering of the soon-to-open TPS, but on the wickedness of Tesco. The USP was … ‘Tesco is a bad, bad supermarket who rip off their customers  and we are going to undercut them and give local people a fair deal’. This didn’t strike me at the time as a  credible business plan and I stood up and said so. Interestingly the response was  slightly puzzling, and it basically consisted of saying almost the exact opposite, essentially that TPS would provide a unique service of local food, organic fruit and veg, fair trade and ethical stuff (wholefoods and household products) great bread and a wonderful atmosphere, seven  days a week right here on Cowley Road.  Fair enough, except that actually of all the places on the planet, Cowley Road has all these things in spades already…. Uhuru,  the Cultivate VegVan, the East Oxford Farmers Market, SESI, Gibbons Bakery and  a myriad of interesting family-run specialist ethnic shops. Ah well  the response to my and by now others, questions on this point, they aren’t all in one place and quite a few of them (Cultivate, Farmers Market) are only open one day a week so we are different and unique.

It duly came to pass that TPS opened – but in a way that shocked its potential core customer base. Essentially between the tahini and rice cakes, most of the stock was snickers, crisps and frozen sprouts and cheap chicken  from Bookers. So cheap certainly, some of it even competitive with Tesco…shame there were only about a dozen lines at any one time that were cheaper, and that the entire stock line was less than 10% of  the Tesco 200m away.

Confusion reigned. Was the TPS really a cheap and cheerful outlet targetted at a customer base that couldn’t afford Tesco prices? Or was it something a bit more right-on? The problem with this confusion was that while the right-on market probably would shop there given  an appropriate product range, after all good as the farmers market is, its only open on Saturdays, the products on sale  were mainly of little interest to that demographic. Meantime the poorer end of the spectrum are people who take their shopping very seriously. They get the cheap offers in Tesco, then head off to the Co-op for theirs,  followed by occasional pickings from the aisles of Sainsbury  and a long slow perusal of the Asian supermarkets like Tahmid Stores, where in truth the prices can literally be one tenth that of their ‘rival’ Uhuru, right across the road, combined with an occasional trip out to Aldi or Lidl beyond the ring road. Anyone on a low income knows this. Even I do. Where does the TPS fit into this? Its another stop on the hunt for bargains, mis-priced goods and special offers. Only the stock range is so pitiful that finding a real bargain is something of a miracle.

It didn’t take all that long for this to become apparent. Bargain hunters largely shunned the shop and the boho middle classes did the same for entirely different reasons. Only students who lived really near by and couldn’t be bothered to check out the Asian shops or walk the extra 300m to Tesco, were regulars. And there weren’t enough of them because it didn’t sell booze.

Over time TPS  created a  customer base of its members. Commit yourself to paying £12 a year membership fee and volunteering to work in the shop for four hours every four weeks and there was a 20% discount on the sale price. Not bad if you had the time and didn’t want to spend those four hours searching the shelves of the wicked Tesco over the road. Fine for the members, but the seeds of disaster for TPS. One supplier who asked to remain anonymous, told me that for example, meat was bought in at say £10 and sold on for £12.50. With err.. a 20% discount to members. You don’t even need to  ‘do the math’ to work out that after paying for heat,  light, rent, ‘shrinkage’ and staff costs (the manager was paid, rumoured to be a hard to believe £35k pa, even if the staff weren’t) this led to a cracking loss on every item sold.

Talking of ‘shrinkage’…. quite early on the TPS suffered a major theft. The takings from a Friday and the weekend were in the office at the back. On a Monday afternoon they still hadn’t been banked and amounted to some £2,000. They  all disappeared. The Police were called and there were tales of the thieves shimmying  over a wall at the back. A month or so later the rather more prosaic truth came out. One of the volunteer members  had walked into the office, seen the cash and couldn’t resist the temptation. Easy-peasy walking out of the front door with a couple of shopping bags and a cheery wave to fellow volunteers, especially as with nearly 600 member/volunteers, keeping a track on everyone coming in and out of the office on any particular day was a complete nightmare.

By this summer the runes weren’t looking good. The pile of cash was burning ever so quickly. Even the decision to move upmarket and ditch the ‘cheaper than Tesco’ pretence didn’t cut it. The problem was that while the volunteers (and the media) were being told that the whole thing was fine, important bills weren’t getting paid, like business rates, the rent and the HMRC. Neither Oxford City Council, nor landlord, happy. Both asked  for payments in advance. Tough, but not totally surprising. Suppliers, right-on co-ops and ethical businesses  themselves, started not getting paid instead. They stopped supplying. The customers noticed and the writing was on the wall. By mid-November it was all over and the landlord insisted that they vacate at the end of the month.

The lessons? From my perspective (I never joined – I always thought it was a ‘turkey’ so this is an outsiders perspective)  first, huge confusion as to who was the target demographic right at the start – people still remarked on the ‘Bookers frozen foods’ of the first few weeks in the final weeks. Second, an assumption that Tesco was expensive and could be beaten at its own game. Well no,  they make a lot of profit and some things are quite expensive, but that doesn’t make it an expensive supermarket. Third, in my view, a pretty elitist view of how people shop. People on low incomes go to lots of shops in search of bargains – and pick up just the bargains from them. Every penny matters. And finally…. when TPS moved upmarket it found itself in competition with the Farmers Market and Uhuru, amongst others. The differences being that both have a much wider range of stock, much better displayed in contexts that aren’t intimidating (several people commented to me that they felt they might get ‘mugged’ between the garish in-shop graffiti and the dexion shelving dispalys). Possibly not cheaper, but that misunderstands that segment of the market, where every penny doesn’t count and the atmosphere and who you might run into and  gossip with, are just as important. In the end TPS failed both ends of its potential market and the rest as they  say, is history.

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