FOR any large food retailer, a pandemic must be the stuff of nightmares.
Apart from the phenomenal strain placed on your services by an anxious public, you also need to find a way of protecting thousands of your staff.
Debbie Robinson - the first woman to take the helm at the Central England Co-op - has taken these challenges in her stride. Times of crisis bring out the best in the mutual sector.
The co-op has hired 1,000 extra staff so it can keep stores open. It has also installed 1,000 safety screens and employed 150 extra security guards to ensure staff and customers feel safe.
Ms Robinson, who previously held senior roles at Marks & Spencer and WH Smith, believes the pandemic will make people see the true value of staff who stack shelves and work behind the tills.
“One of the biggest things will be the change in public perception for our frontline colleagues,’’ she said: “These are people who, in the past, might not have been recognised for the vital role they play in society.
“These uncertain times have now shown everyone how important they are in making sure everyone has access to food and essentials.”
But has it been easy to find personal protective equipment (PPE) for people employed in retail?
In common with other retailers and the emergency services, the mutual has had to work harder than ever to secure PPE, according to Ms Robinson.
“However, our teams quickly managed to secure supplies of soap and hand sanitiser for our colleagues as well as installing more than 1,000 plastic screens to keep our colleagues and customers safe,’’ she said. “We are constantly reviewing these measures to ensure we are doing our best for everyone.”
Central England is one of the largest independent retail co-operative societies in the UK with interests in food, funeral services travel and property investment.
Ms Robinson has responsibility for 430 stores across 16 counties, including West and South Yorkshire.
The co-op invests a percentage of trading profits into local communities through its Community Dividend Fund scheme. The mutual has donated more than £1.3 million to its corporate charity partner Dementia UK. It also operates a food redistribution partnership with FareShare Midlands to ensure that unsold food goes to those in need.
“At times like these being a co-operative retailer allows us to make sure we are leading the way for our communities, as we know the issues that are impacting them day in and day out,’’ said Ms Robinson, who is the former managing director at SPAR UK.
“After hearing from our food bank partners that demand for their services had jumped by 100 per cent, and donations had fallen by 50 per cent, we launched an urgent food bank appeal.
“Our customers showed their co-operative spirit and have already donated more than 30,000 items that will be turned into food packages.
She added: “We also arranged a donation to our food redistribution partners FareShare Midlands and FareShare Anglia to pay for extra deliveries of vital food packages across the region and for care parcels to be handed out to nurses who work for our corporate charity partner Dementia UK so they can continue their work.”
Under her leadership, the co-op has launched schemes with local councils to identify vulnerable people and provide them with food and other essentials.
It is also offering NHS staff a 10 per cent discount and priority access to its stores.
“These are just a handful of examples of how, as a result of being a co-operative business, we can boost the work we are already doing in our communities to have an even bigger impact during uncertain times like these,’’ said Ms Robinson.
Ms Robinson has always believed that business has a wider humanitarian role, which probably explains why she feels so at home in the mutual sector.
She completed a charity cycle across Vietnam and Cambodia to raise funds for The Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a global humanitarian and advocacy organisation which finds, removes and destroys landmines, cluster munitions and unexploded bombs from places torn apart by war.
MAG also provides education programmes, particularly for children, so people can live, work and play as safely as a possible until they clear the land.
Since 1989, MAG has helped more than 18 million people in 68 countries rebuild their lives after war.
Ms Robinson is determined to ensure the Central England Co-op remains a progressive business that never loses sight of its ideals.
“I joined to become a part of an organisation that genuinely makes a positive community impact,’’ she added. “We are now working to grow sustainably and make the most of our society’s key USP (unique selling point); our co- operative values and principles.
“We are also lucky as a business to have a large number of colleagues who have been with us for 10, 20, 30. 40 and in some cases 50 years because they truly believe in what we stand for.”
Once the pandemic finally eases, Ms Robinson’s thoughts will turn to expansion.
“Over the coming year we will continue to invest in new stores together with a major refurbishment programme aimed at improving our best performing existing stores and continuing what we are showcasing now,’’ she said.
“We are a co-operative retailer who truly understands what our communities need and have the tools and backing to make sure we can help them.”
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