This morning I chaired an event in a packed Great Room to launch an RSA report on the scope for large retailers to be active contributors to community life. It is easy to see corporate responsibility as a marginal issue in comparison to the big questions of public policy. Also, as the report focussed in particularly on one initiative – Asda’s community life programme - the research could be seen as public relations flim flam. But having read the report and chaired the event I think the future of retail sector and its relationship to local communities is significant and am reassured that the RSA and Asda have flagged up some of the significant challenges ahead for what we term ‘community venturing’.
There are 46 million retail transactions in the UK each day. Only big retail chains have this scope for face-to-face interaction with the public. Yet, despite its importance in our lives and localities the sector has been neglected as a subject for wider social research.
We may be missing a trick. As many physical spaces for public connection – libraries for example – are closed down, supermarkets could provide a new setting for people to engage with each other and with key local challenges. Now is a key moment. As large stores are reformatted to serve mobile-connected customers, there is a chance to reimagine the form and function of ‘big box’ retail.
The RSA has a growing body of work exploring the role that the retail sector can play in connecting and strengthening communities. For this project we spent six months undertaking fieldwork and data analysis with three contrasting Asda supermarkets implementing Community Life. This programme involves opening up 570 stores to offer free space for use by community groups, and allocating 22 hours per week of paid staff time to coordinate the store’s local engagement.
Retail is renowned as a fiercely competitive sector. While donating money to charity through grants is valuable and worthy, our report focuses on the business case for 'shared value': where commercial activity can support positive social value, and social activity can support positive commercial impact. We call the exploration of such opportunities ‘community venturing’.
It is clear from our research that to build trust and loyalty from local customers, a localised store-by-store approach is imperative. Community ventures will be effective when they are co-developed through partnerships with existing local charities, voluntary groups and public sector agencies. This could mean sharing data between businesses and public authorities; offering new services in store for citizens and entrepreneurs as well as shoppers; bringing a range of public service interactions into the store; and better utilising physical space such as car parks for commercial and community use.
In Tilbury, Battersea and Oldham, we brought local stakeholders together to develop ideas for the community ventures they’d like to see in their Asda supermarket. In the short-term, they wanted to build on existing services such as pharmacies in store to offer a wider range of health services and tackling nutrition, cooking skills and budgeting together. Thinking five years ahead citizens had ideas that included drive-in movies in car parks at night in areas with no cinema and roofs of supermarkets being endowed to community trusts producing renewable energy. In each case, it is clear that as an anchoring institution, reliant on local people for business and workforce, the public wants large retailers to show leadership for the local area, for example serving as a hub for volunteer recruitment or services for start-ups and small businesses.
Supermarkets have complex algorithms to stock their stores with products, but if they are committed to making a difference on issues of public concern such as obesity – a particular concern in Tilbury - they can use sophisticated data from local health authorities on the scale and nature of these challenges. In areas with high residential turnover and overcrowded homes like Battersea, housing authorities could work with retailers to better manage and recycle the waste generated from moving, sell space-saving storage units, and offer homework clubs in store.
Sixty years after the first supermarket opened its doors in Streatham in South London, there’s now at last one in almost every neighbourhood. Price, quality and convenience are key customer values but the retail giants now have the opportunity for a benign competition to be the greatest provider of additional local social capacity.
To put all this into practice, stores need the power and permission to experiment at the front line in engaging with the customers and wider public. Asda recognised that engagement had be devolved, something which can be challenging for a company which relies so much on central service and economies of scale, Local and central government, along with charities and third sector providers, need to be leaders in this process too.
Through a prolonged period of austerity, the contribution of businesses locally in developing community ventures with social and environmental benefits could be significant.