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The Rising of the Self-Aware Student Shopper?

3rd March 2011

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With Student Maintenance Loans being held at the same rate for several years and ever increasing food prices, students now have to be more creative when it comes to food shopping. So is The People’s Supermarket the way forward? Or is the co-operative format destined to fail?

The People's SupermarketThe People’s Supermarket is a new co-op structured shop opposite Great Ormond Street Hospital in Central London. Set up as an alternative to the big four supermarkets, members pay £25 per year and work four hours per month in the shop and in return receive a 10% discount and the opportunity to attend regular meetings where they can voice their opinions on how the shop is run. The model is based on a similar venture in New York called Park Slope Food Co-op, which was founded in 1973 and now has over 12,000 members.

 I first came across The People’s Supermarket in September 2010. Adorned with wasp-yellow banners and over-priced humus, I was unsure of what to make of it. Co-founded by Chef Arthur Potts-Dawson, the shop is committed to supporting farmers by buying produce at a fair price, recycling and keeping waste to a minimum and supporting the needs of the local community.  Now the subject of a Channel 4 documentary, it’s catching the eye of many, including David Cameron who decided to promote the re-launch of The Big Society at the supermarket. So I decided to return to TPS see how they’re dealing with the media frenzy, if the shop is living up to its original intentions and if so, how students can cut in on the deal.

Two days after the Prime Minister’s visit, I can tell the store is still a whirl. I squeeze past a reporter standing outside conducting interviews amongst the shoppers, whilst the staff looks on, less than pleased at the media intrusion. One of the first things that struck me about TPS is it really does seem to have attracted a diverse membership from across the local area. From the two girls on their break discussing Facebook groups and holidays over a cup of tea downstairs in the office to random recycling bins and washing lines, this place does have a communal, dare I say, grass roots feel to it.

It seems like a perfect place for students, the opportunity to meet new people and get discounted shopping bills. Located in the heart of University College London, Birkbeck and Central Saint Martin campuses, are they tapping in to the lucrative student population?  I asked Kate Bull, co-founder how many student members they have.

“About thirty, mainly from the local area. We have quite a group from The School of Oriental and African Studies, and a few of our duty mangers are students so we employ them too.” 30 out of over 500 members does not sound like a great percentage, so where is this model falling short? Is it the commitment of hours? Expensive produce? Or inconvenient location? How many students do you know live in Central London? Or is it a need for a fundamental shift in our consumer behaviour?

“We can compete on produce such as organic fruit and veg, by reducing our profit margins, but when it comes to promotional offers companies like Tesco can go straight to the producers and buy bulk, cutting out the wholesaler,” explains Andy Leach, one of the Duty Managers.  The problem seems to lie in our inability to overcome the seduction of filthy cheap selection boxes and DVD players in the chain supermarkets and take responsibility for our spending.

Despite having no political alliance or agenda, the model is naturally socialist. Andy confessed he was slightly worried about the back-lash of the Prime Minister’s visit in their members meeting that evening. However aren’t projects like these the epitome of The Big Society? Whichever way the venture is marketed, it is a contentious project that can unite and divide a community.

The outcome seems that TPS won’t be pilfering hard-lined shoppers. If you’re on a shoe string budget, overworked and underpaid, your impact on farmers, the community and the environment comes second to keeping the bailiffs away. However, if you’re prepared to take the necessary steps to collect those karma points and take responsibility for your spending, projects like this are a fantastic opportunity.

I round-up the interview asking about plans to open TPS in other areas of the country. “No, as the format is distinctive to the region, it needs local people to set it up and adapt it to the community’s needs. However we are looking at funds to write a manual so people can open one up in their area.” So, if you’re not already tempted to join why not think about creating your own? It doesn’t need a Big Society baptising, but a break-down of shopping routines and a rehabilitation of our cheap consumer cravings.

Image: haarala hamilton photography

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