Stirchley Stores is a community cooperative, registered and operating under Industrial Provident Society rules.
Our aim with the shop was to create a community hub in the heart of Stirchley, South Birmingham, by establishing a sustainable business model in the form of a cooperative food retailer, run by the community for the community. We operated as a ‘not for profit’ business and were predominantly managed and run by a team of unpaid volunteers, each being rewarded for their efforts with a 10% shop discount.
The development of Stirchley Stores (and its predecessor South Birmingham Food Co-op) has taken place over the last five years. We went from a living room buying group, to running a stall at the local market, to running a shop in collaboration with Loaf Social Enterprise that was open 5 hours a day, 5 days a week.
At the conclusion of this collaborative project with Loaf and our vacating of the retail space we have scaled back to form a new community buying group (continuing under the name Stirchley Stores). This allows members continued access to the majority of the produce that was sold in the shop and to stay involved in the organisation, with the possibility of creating further larger scale projects in the future.
“Stirchley Stores is a cooperative enterprise, with the aim of supplying ethical, affordable and local food. Sustainability and community are at the heart of Stirchley Stores, empowering people to contribute to the rejuvenation of their High Street.”
In addition to this we aimed to:
- Create an affordable alternative to supermarket shopping for the local area.
- Provide training and experience so that volunteers can up-skill and in the case of unemployment find work.
- Provide a hub for the community to share experiences, food, skills and stories.
- Provide support to local food producers by providing retail, marketing space and a food network within Stirchley.
- Reduce the environmental impact of buying food and household goods by buying in bulk to reduce packaging, only purchasing vegetarian goods (with the exception of local cheeses which use animal rennet) and ordering efficiently to reduce fuel used on deliveries.
- Minimise food wastage by ensuring any food which cannot be sold is made available to those who can use it.
- Promote the cooperative principles as an alternative way of organising.
- Work together as a group to provide an efficient service for all.
- Support Loaf bakery by selling their bread in return for shop space.
Stirchley Stores began in January 2010 as a buying group and was registered with the FSA as an Industrial Provident Society in September 2012. Stirchley Stores had a board of three Directors; Treasurer, Chair and Secretary who are elected at the AGM. Other committee positions elected included; Marketing Lead, Stock Lead, Ethics Advisor, and Social Secretary. The committee was accountable to the members at all times and had open meetings with the volunteers once every three weeks.
- January 2010 Buying group with 30 members
- January 2011 Helped to establish Stirchley Market and kept a regular stall
- September 2012 Stirchley Stores shop opening with 60 members joining within the first month
- Christmas Party 2012 Celebrating the 100 member mark and 5 local suppliers
- February 2012 Bulk buying from Suma made available to members. First order was £600.
- September 2013 Received funding to pay for a full time shop manager
- April 2014 Stirchley Stores shop closed to give way to Loaf to expand their bakery and cooking school
- August 2014 First meeting of the new Stirchley Stores community buying group
Volunteers and Staff
- 167 Members
- 1 Part Time Volunteer Coordinator
- 1 Full time Shop Manager
Organisations we Worked With
- Loaf – Short for Loaf Social Enterprise Limited, whose aim is to promote real food and healthy living in Birmingham and build community through food. They generate profit through providing various services, including a bakery and cookery school. In exchange for sole use of Loaf’s retail space, we managed the sale of their baked goods. We managed the shop space and helped to upkeep the stock room. We were invoiced weekly for the baked goods and paid a share towards utilities, maintenance and waste. It was a mutually beneficial relationship that helped both businesses to move from a domestic to a commercial space. Together we worked to create a popular retail hub.
- Local Independent Suppliers – We provided an outlet for suppliers who usually sell at markets and not in the shops. These include; Jack Rabbit Spices, Cuffufle Preserves and Pips Hot Sauces.
- Universities – We worked with universities to enable students on internship programmes to gain their work experience through Stirchley Stores.
- Birmingham Food Groups – We worked towards an “edible Birmingham” by bringing food groups together. We met Veg’d Out in March 2012 and Groundwork in May 2012. We attended regular sustainability forums and have hosted a stall at the food focussed events.
- Community Partnerships – In March 2012 four volunteers from the Challenge visited to discuss ethical food. They fund-raised over £100 so that they could buy food from us and donate it to a food bank.
- Local Birmingham Volunteer Networks – We advertise with BVSC, Birmingham’s centre for voluntary action. BVSC have also supported us with PAYE and end of year accounts.
- Cooperative retailers across the UK – Our volunteers have visited four cooperative food retailers, with the aim of sharing knowledge and experiences.
- Cooperative Networks – Members have attended UK and Birmingham cooperative conferences including; Cooperatives United, Midlands Cooperative, Cooperatives UK Reading Meeting and South Birmingham Cooperative Meetings. We have received funding from Midlands Cooperatives to pay for our FSA registration and expertise and guidance from Cooperative Futures. We have always supported other local community groups starting up, in particular by sharing policy and legal documents.
We sold a variety of different product ranges including;
- fresh bread and cakes from Loaf
- bulk ‘scoop’ products including dried fruit, lentils and rice from Suma, and flour from Shipton Mill
- fresh eggs, milk and butter from More Fresh
- local preserves and spices from Cuffufle Preserves , Pips Hot Sauces and Jack Rabbit Spices
- staples including tins, jars, teas and coffees from Suma, Revolver and East End Foods
- local honey
The scoop section was our proudest unique selling point and something we always wanted to develop and expand.
Our shop was managed by 10-15 key volunteers and 1-2 employees, with 30-50 volunteer shop assistants. Our central committee consisted of eight members and five subgroups which met regularly to coordinate the management of the shop. This has been a new experience for everyone involved and was a fantastic way to get hands on experience in a range of skills.
Broadly speaking we can split our beneficiaries into three groups; customers, suppliers and volunteers.
We created a community hub for people to do their shopping with a smile, customers loved the shop and were invited to share their comments, suggestions and new product requests. Residents had easier access to healthy food which they could prepare from scratch – bulk food from the scoop section proved to be popular and was our second best seller. Our customer base in Stirchley continued to grow throughout the lifetime of the shop with sales increasing to around £1000 per week for Stirchley Stores products. Weekday sales were generally higher for Stirchley Stores products than for Loaf. We were finding that an increasing number of customers were regular and travelling from across South Birmingham. During the run up to the shop closure, many customers were genuinely upset and said that their shopping had been transformed over the past couple of years. Our members have also worked out in the community attending skills share events and contributing to the wider Birmingham food community.
Over the 2 years of trading we managed to double the amount of shelf space. We have been of significant benefit to our local suppliers. We were the second largest distributor of Revolver Coffee who also supply to a large number of other retailers. Rachel Carter from Cuffufle Preserves reported that “Stirchley Stores has been of significant help and support to [her] business” and that we are her biggest stockist to date. We helped to launch Pip’s Sauces and were the first retailer to stock her products. Loaf has continuously expanded and recently transformed its business into a cooperative employing nearly 10 staff. The cookery school business is very successful and the business is able to focus on diversifying in other areas including retail and increasing production.
With the hard work put in by volunteers causing Stirchley Stores to grow, with it grew the need for employees. In the latter stages of the shop, we had 2 paid positions within the organisation, both of which were filled by long-time volunteers who wished to develop careers in the sector. The shop manager had previously been without paid work for a long period of time, and this work experience gave him a fantastic opportunity to be paid and train on the job.
We had very simple ways of sharing information, which meant that members could be as involved as they wanted. From the general meetings every 3 weeks to accessing a range of online media, from social media such as Twitter and Facebook to sharing our files over Googledocs. Communications systems we used were:
- Googledrive – File Storage – access available to every member. Shift rota was an open edit spreadsheet where members could add their name to their preferred shift.
- MailChimp – Easy to use and very professional mailshot tool.
- Loomio – Online forum giving members the opportunity to discuss, debate and consider new ideas or changes at their convenience. Feedback was given at meetings.
- WordPress – For Website design and maintenance.
- Horde – Secure email account, good for setting up various group emails.
- Monthly newsletter – Including meeting minutes, volunteering opportunities, news, changes or local events.
- Twitter and Facebook – Social media used to keep members and the wider community up to date.
Our members volunteered for a wide range of reasons. Some of them are obvious – they agree with the aims of the shop and want it to succeed – but some are more personal, quirky and even ‘selfish’. Below are the testimonials of some of the volunteers involved.
I believe in the ethos of co-operatives; having recently been made redundant I am looking to spend some time doing something that feels worthwhile and come into contact with like-minded people. Also as a Stirchley resident I am really happy to see something new on the poor old High St! Especially when it’s not Tesco and sells such delicious bread.
I started to volunteer because I wanted to be a participant in a wholefood buying co-op – having run a couple over the years, I was keen to get involved. I had not reckoned on getting so interested in the “let’s regenerate the high street” side of things – I don’t live in Stirchley after all. However, the more shifts I do, I am really enjoying that side of the shop – the encouraging of community spirit, the “local-ness” of it all. I enjoy meeting all the people – fellow co-op members, bakers and customers. I really enjoy my shifts -only sorry that I am not able to make the evening meetings to get to know every one a bit better.
I enjoy volunteering because I have struggled in employment in recent times due to mental health problems. Volunteering at Stirchley Stores reassures me that I’m not a complete waste of space and being in a work environment, if only for a few hours a month, helps to keep me motivated and has had a positive impact on my self esteem.
What Improvements Could be Made in the Future?
- With guidance from Cooperative Futures we learnt about our governance and decision making structure as we went along. Internally we had a committee member who looked after rules and ethics, helping to ensure that meetings were run in accordance to our constitution.
- We took democratic decision making very seriously and ensured that at every meeting there was a quorum of members to make a decision. We later found out that under our rules structure the committee were able to vote on smaller business decisions without bringing them to the big group meetings. This may have simplified the general meetings and freed up time to talk more about promotion, marketing, etc.
- We probably should have conducted more research and tried to imagine how our rules and constitution would work once the shop was open.
- The structure of the cooperative meant that people who made decisions were often not accountable for implementing them. Decisions were made by people because they were seen to be ‘good’ but were not always the ‘right’ business decision.
- The size of the membership and lack of commitment from members meant that the governance structure was too unwieldy to be effective. Volunteers could only commit a limited amount of time to Stirchley Stores and they were not always interested or available to take part in decision making processes.
- Our structure – a democracy with dozens of members making small contributions at various times – was very challenging in practice, and we found that individuals often had to behave in a more ‘autocratic’ fashion in order to move forwards and get things done.
- The Committee roles were very demanding, more so when the rest of the cooperative is also run by volunteers. There is a lot of work that has been picked up by a small group of people.
- The committee communicated regularly by email, but generally only met up as a committee alone very occasionally. The 2 or 3-weekly General Meetings were normally used for this purpose. Loomio, Googledocs and email were fantastic tools to keep up to date with what was happening.
- We would recommend that in the future that there are two distinct regular meetings (committee & general), so that business strategy and day to day running can be discussed and/or changed in tandem.
- When the cooperative opened there was no committee and we have always struggled to fill all of the positions. In the first AGM it took a long while to get a chair and treasurer. Since then, the marketing position has been very difficult to maintain. More recently, after the treasurer had to stand down unexpectedly, the transition to a new treasurer was awkward, with the various aspects of the role taking time to hand over fully.
- We would have liked to have more opportunity for skills sharing so that knowledge was not in the hands of few. However in our case we didn’t have enough interest from members to take up these roles on a long term voluntary basis.
- Given the size of South Birmingham Food Co-op (25 members) it was a big leap to take over the shop straight away. Organic growth may have worked more effectively, perhaps starting off as a buying group using storage space from Loaf, and then moving to having some shelf space in the shop and then looking to manage the retail space.
- Funding applications are easy enough to write but only the very first hurdle. A strong team with a toolkit of different skills who are committed to the business plan and longer term sustainability are essential. Some members of the buying group didn’t commit to continuing once a shop opened. This resulted in a very small team of people opening and launching the shop in September 2012, which left us very vulnerable.
- The shop opened under very tight time-scales. We had a week to build the entire shop space. This was not enough time and meant we had a skeleton of a shop to begin with. We have since done extensive research on the type of shop shelving that we would use, taking into consideration customer experience, accessibility, flow of the shop and ease of choosing products. We’d recommend leaving sufficient time for planning and building. If you can’t afford nice shelving to start with, have a plan of what you would like to afford and aim to refurbish the shop as soon as possible with the new designs. Although functional, some home-made shelving was difficult for all of our customers to access.
Layout and Concept
- The unique selling point (USP) of the shop was that you could buy ‘scoop’ products by weight as an alternative to the supermarket. It took our customers 6-18 months to become reliant on the products that we sold. If more marketing, workshops, classes, evening events and recipes had been on offer from the start, our regular customer base might have been quicker off the mark.
- The scoop section was bulky to use and boxes could be quite heavy. In future, we’d like to make the scoop section more fun and interactive, with a wider range of products in different sized jars that can pour out without the customer having to lift a finger. http://www.multistorey.net/Unpackaged is where we’d take our inspiration from.
- The overall feel of the shop was begged and borrowed shabby chic, often more shabby second-hand-doesn’t-quite-fit than chic. Shelves were packed and often difficult to navigate. It made shopping difficult and even the volunteers took a long time to work out what products we actually sold! We’d invest in a bigger shop space, leaving room for a funky, memorable layout giving space for products, customers and staff to interact.
- The shop was small. Volunteers really enjoyed being part of a community, but it would have worked better if there had been space to take time browsing and chatting. Next time we’d have a bigger space so that people could queue comfortably, meet for a coffee or have a meeting.
- We have been through fridges – from a second hand fridge from a deli that was huge and really inefficient, to a tall glass fridge, to a short domestic fridge. We’ve found people buy what they can see. Glass fridges steam up and domestic fridges are too small. Invest in a unit that displays your fresh produce well, so that regulars and browsers alike can buy your products.
Stock and Shop Management
- The initial range of products sold was decided in the funding application and included £3000 worth of products. Initially we bought mainly organic produce. Customer feedback quickly identified that this was too expensive and not what people wanted to buy. Next time we would do more market research, buy a wider range of products and do regular smaller orders to test what people would buy.
- When stock management was taken over by a paid member of staff it had a direct correlation with sales increases. More of the right stock was purchased, it was swapped and changed, and we were selling more of what people wanted to buy.
- A more joined up approach to working from the start, including a shop manager, would have saved many hours in store and created a consistent level of customer service.
- The shop was less chaotic when there was a person dedicated to the shop. With volunteers only working 2 hour shifts, continuity is otherwise difficult to maintain.
- Stock management is very laborious if you do not have an electronic point of sale (EPOS) system in place. We didn’t and would have benefited from a lot of saved hours in Excel spreadsheets if we had.
- We have learnt that a business that is run by volunteers is a huge ask on the people who are doing a large amount of the work. Their commitment is difficult to sustain long term and members can have changes in commitments and/or run out of steam!
- Next time if we ran a shop 5 days a week we would have paid employees working as shop assistants with volunteers supporting on shift.
- We would have liked to have had more volunteer benefits. 10% discount was not especially valued by people, they more enjoyed being part of a bigger community and the social side of the shop. Popular things could have been more foody socials, workshops and skill sharing evenings.
- Volunteer turnover was higher than anticipated, with many people able to commit for short periods of time only. The unemployed were one of our most active volunteer groups and we often came to be reliant on people who then went on to find work.
- Volunteers take a lot of TLC. It was fantastic we had so many, however, it did make the way the shop worked more inefficient.
- Shift sign-up emails were sent to the volunteer group sometimes up to 3 or 4 times a week. When shifts weren’t being filled ‘guilt-trip’ emails were sometimes sent. It did work, but wasn’t the atmosphere we wanted to create.
- The purpose of the shop was to provide the community with an ethical, local and affordable alternative to supermarkets. Our initial business plan was based on putting a standard mark-up on all products to keep our prices competitive. We forecast a small net profit in year 1. In year 2 we aimed to cover the cost of a volunteer coordinator for a reduced number of hours. Initially we did not meet the sales targets in our business plan and we underestimated some of our overhead costs. This made money very tight throughout the project and made us reliant on further funding to sustain a small workforce of 1 full time and 1 part time employee.
- Given the opportunity again, (financial) sustainability would have been at the heart of the business plan from the start, with clearer strategies for growth, ways of increasing sales and new business, product lines and employees. A standard mark up on all products wasn’t always appropriate. We could have increased the mark up on some products and still be priced fairly and competitively.
- Tried and tested retail accounting systems can be expensive when you start up. Ours was rebuilt as we went along, which turned out to be very time consuming. We would recommend that you invest in accounting software very early on and trial it before opening.
- Financial experience and expertise of small businesses accounting essential for the treasurer role.
Stirchley Stores started as a small buying group and with Loaf opening a bakery came the opportunity to start a community-run shop. With the help of many volunteers and funders Stirchley Stores began.
Our values were selling ethical, local and affordable food and we upheld those throughout with only minor hiccups. Volunteers were the essence of this project and with them Stirchley Stores developed from a shop to a community hub.
Although challenges were faced, our members built something that shouldn’t work, sounded crazy on paper, but was a success. Stirchley Stores has proved an alternative business model can work in the right conditions and can focus a community, adding value to people’s lives and neighbourhoods.