The new manager of Co-operative Food’s Lerwick shop has vowed to put the customer-owned society back at the “heart of the community”.
41-year-old Jim Shanks, originally from Glasgow, took the helm earlier this month. He inherits a store which has lost considerable trade to rival supermarket Tesco since the latter’s major expansion of its South Road store four years ago.
One local politician told this newspaper privately that the Co-operative’s Lerwick branch badly needed to “smarten up” its act. It was “like chalk and cheese” compared to better-run Co-operative outlets on the Scottish mainland, they said.
Without getting into many specifics, Mr Shanks acknowledged there were things “I need to address”. He has already identified the need for a cashpoint, and is eager to have a “two-way conversation” – taking on board customers’ feedback while also spreading the gospel about the Co-operative’s distinctive mission.
In the short time since Mr Shanks moved to the islands, he has been “overwhelmed” by how welcoming people are and has detected “a great sense of community in Shetland”.
He hopes to capitalise on that in several ways. Those include getting involved with volunteer groups, educating local schools about the importance of fair trade and ensuring more people understand that the Co-operative is a society owned by its members, not a conventional business.
“I’m a great believer that we have to get back in the heart of the community, because we’re a community-based organisation,” Mr Shanks said. “That’s where we’re looking at things to support local organisations from one end of the spectrum to the other.”
Asked whether some kind of store revamp or overhaul was in the pipeline, he replied: “I’m always looking at things. I can’t comment at the moment because it would be inappropriate to, but we are moving it forward on our customers’ feedback.”
Figures from a forthcoming SIC study show the islands’ entire retail sector was worth nearly £60 million in 2011. Anecdotally, it has been suggested that Tesco now accounts for more than half that sum – though store manager Paul Clelland said he was unable to comment on its turnover.
Irrespective of the precise figures, it is abundantly clear from observing the number of vehicles in the supermarkets’ respective car parks that trade at the Co-operative tills has taken a considerable dunt.
Two years ago the Lerwick branch announced it was shedding 14 full-time equivalent posts, but Mr Shanks insisted there were no concerns about the store’s long-term viability. It now employs 10 full-time and 44 part-time members of staff, and there are no plans to change that at present.
The Co-operative Food group as a whole is “in a period of change”, Mr Shanks said. He also pointed out that the Co-operative has a food store in every UK postal district, and the society has toughed out plenty of “ups and downs” in its 160-year history.
As one would expect, the new man is eager to wrest some trade back from Tesco.
“Every competitor would say that. Yes, we’d be looking at bringing customers back to our doors. Without going into stats and figures, what I can say is that we are in a comfortable position. But we’re always looking to improve, we’re always open to suggestions.”