Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

ASDA: and an interview with BEN REID, Mid-counties Co-operative

In Guest Feature, O. Adams on December 18, 2012 at 1:34 pm

The Waltons of Arkansas, USA would be setting up shop just off Valley Road in Cinderford, if Asda hadn’t been blocked by the Co-op. A judicial review over whether the application had followed due process is being sought by the Mid-counties Co-operative Society. And yet, despite the Co-op being part-owned by the people of Cinderford, others in the town and elsewhere in the Forest have been campaigning on behalf of the American corporate empire.

Why? Because they believe an Asda store would save them money and offer more choice, and because of a build-up of resentment at perceived Co-op actions to block other retail giants. I sometimes shop at the Gloucester Asda store to get ingredients unavailable in the Forest and the ins on offer, so can understand the desire to bring cheaper shopping closer to home. But the planned Asda in Cinderford would not be a “super centre” like that in Gloucester. It would sell nowhere near the amount and range of the city mega store.

Trilogy, the developer behind the Cinderford scheme, has promised 200 jobs (whether these will be full-time, part-time or workfare isn’t known). It has also offered as sweeteners some enhancements to the town centre, and improvements to the bus station – including a bus that will take you straight from Dockham Road to the new Asda store! Yet another incentive not to visit the independent high street of the town!

Do we actually want or need Walmart/Asda in our Forest, especially if it will be at the expense of both the Co-op and independent shops, of which there are still many in Cinderford. The same can’t be said of Lydney, post-Tesco. Walmart, a company notorious for exploiting producers and resources around the world as well as its own employees, or Associates as it likes to call them. Its mighty muscle means that it can dictate “free trade” to its own advantage at the expense of workers worldwide. Walmart regularly engages in “predatory pricing” and loss leaders to wipe the floor with its less-powerful opponents.

About 70 per cent of Walmart employees worldwide don’t last more than a year in the job. Studies in the US have shown employees typically earn 20 per cent less than equivalent posts in other stores. Workers are banned from organising in a union, and there have been many lawsuits over employees being forced to work overtime with no pay, as well as complaints of workers being spied on by management.

While the Co-op may deserve some of the flak it gets, it rarely gets a chance to have its say – unlike those parading with corporate signs through our Forest towns. The Clarion put some pertinent question to Ben Reid, chief executive of the Mid-counties Co-operative (based in the West Midlands, rather than Arkansas!)

* What in your view would be the effects, detrimental or otherwise, of an Asda supermarket opening in Cinderford, for Mid-counties Co-op and the town as a whole?

Inevitably trade will be diverted away from our Co-op store if an Asda opens in the town, but the key point is that a large store on the edge of town which sells both food and non-food products will have a significant impact upon the viability of the town centre.

* How would you respond to pro-Asda campaigners’ claims that a new store would offer more choice and cheaper produce?

Each retail brand has a mix of different strengths and it is difficult to evaluate them in simple terms. The public has demonstrated around the country that they wish to have a choice of retailer regardless of a particular store’s current promotional policy.

* Is resisting the prospect of an Asda store an issue of ethics or protectionism, a mixture of the two, or something else?

It is our responsibility to defend the investment that we have made on behalf of our members. In addition, why should we stand by and allow the jobs of our colleagues to be put at risk when it appears that the local authority has not followed due process? If your neighbour was building an extension to their house without proper consent wouldn’t you protest?

* One charge some are making against the Co-op’s recent extension in Coleford was that rather that it filling a gap in the local market, such as non-food retail, the result is squeezing the business of smaller cafes in town. Why did you decide to open a cafe rather than sell products unavailable elsewhere?

We carried out a survey of our customers and high on their list of requirements in the enlarged store was a coffee shop. As a member-owned business it was therefore appropriate to respond positively.

* What would you say to those dissatisfied with the Co-op who say they would prefer to shop at Asda?

Be careful what you wish for. Towns up and down the country deeply regret the development of the large edge-of-town superstores.

* Is it true, as some claim, that the Co-op had an agreement in Cinderford that no competitors would be allowed into the town (besides Lidl, which was allowed, some claim, as it was registered as a discount store rather than a supermarket)?

Completely ridiculous.

* Some are urging a boycott of Co-op stores in the Forest of Dean. Has this had any effect?

There is a vocal minority but don’t under-estimate the significant silent majority who are strong supporters of our business. We have seen no impact upon our levels of trade.

* What are the advantages for Co-op employees compared to employment rights and conditions at Asda or other supermarkets?

As Co-op colleagues almost all are members and therefore owners of the business. There is a strong colleague-focused culture within the Society. That gives them a voice and a strong sense of loyalty. Our colleague engagement scores are amongst the highest in the industry and we have been rated one of the top 25 large employers in the country. There is therefore a clear indication that the Co-op is a good place to work and we would be quite happy to be compared with Asda. In our view it’s no contest.

* The Asda developer, Trilogy, is offering to improve the centre of Cinderford, the bus station and local public transport system in exchange for the store – are there any incentives Mid-counties Co-op could offer in improving the town centre?

The amount on offer is tiny compared to the profits they and Asda will make from the development. When compared to the long-term damage they will do to the town, their offer is derisory.* If your bid for a judicial review comes out in favour of Asda, what next?

If the judicial review fails, then we will consider our options both in terms of further appeals and the potential re-configuration of our store.

* Why should people stick with the Co-op?

The Co-op is owned by the people of Cinderford. We have supported the town for many years when other retailers shunned it. It is therefore not unreasonable to ask that the actual owners of the business show their support. If they are unhappy with any aspect of our business they are able to express their views freely to management either directly or at our Member meetings and we will do our best to respond.

That is not an offer that will be made by American-owned Asda.

ArticIe and interview by OWEN ADAMS

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