By the community for the community: the rise of cooperative participative supermarkets

15 Nov 2021

Cooperative supermarkets owned and operated by consumers based on a model pioneered by Brooklyn residents are becoming increasingly popular in Europe.

Communities across France, Belgium, Ireland and Luxembourg have in recent years set up co-ops to sell high-quality food at affordable prices.

Joe Holtz, a member of the Park Slope Co-op in New York says that members gave the cooperative a competitive advantage. “Our cooperative is amazingly strong because of the connection members have with us. Our members are creating the wealth of this cooperative together,” he said. Park Slope is also gaining from being a member of National Co+op Grocers, through which it is able to work with similar grocery stores to improve efficiencies, lower costs and achieve scale.

In France the trend started in 2012 when a group of Paris residents started working on setting up La Louve, a cooperative store selling organic produce based on the Park Slope Co-op in New York. In addition to selling affordable organic products, they also aimed to pay producers a fair price. By working for La Louve once every four weeks, members of the cooperative save between 20% and 40% on groceries. La Louve, which describes itself as ‘a cooperative participative supermarket’, was soon followed by Super Quinquin in Lille, Supercoop in Bordeaux, La Chouette Coop in Toulouse, and Scopeli in Nantes.

According to Olivier Mugnier, Secretary-General of the French National Association of Consumer Cooperatives (FNCC), the popularity of the model in France is due to a growing interest in locally grown and responsibly sourced healthy food and the fact that consumers are more keen to get involved – the cooperative model meets both aspects. The trend was also facilitated by a shift in people’s attitudes to co-ops, which Mr Mugnier attributes to the promotional activities that took place in 2012 – the International Year of Co-operatives, and the passing of the Law on the Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE) in 2014.

Likewise in Belgium the Bees Coop in Brussels opened the country’s first consumer-owned and managed supermarket in 2014, which functions based on a ‘triple commitment’ from its members – who are simultaneously an owner, a worker and a customer. The cooperative now has over 1,500 members.

Similarly, in Limerick, Ireland, a group of locals opened a community grocery cooperative named Urban Co-op in 2013. The cooperative runs a full-service retail grocery store and community wellness hub, with over 2,500 members. It has three types of members, depending on how much they want to be involved in running the co-op.

Another supermarket set up in recent years is Alter Coop in Luxembourg. Camille Lacombe, a member of the supermarket, says the store is operated entirely by its members and open to them only. “The store’s operating costs are thus reduced and the products can therefore be sold to members at a lower price,” she added.

Another Luxembourg supermarket that opened in 2016, Organic Unpackaged Natural Ingredients (OUNI), was set up by local residents who shared a passion for innovative, no-waste approaches. They chose the co-operative model because they realised early on the public wanted to be involved in their project. To respond to the different needs of the community, they developed a hybrid membership offer which allows members who want this to volunteer their time to help run the supermarket, which gets them a reduction of 5% on all their purchases. Regular members can get a return on their investment if approved at the annual general meeting along with voting rights in accordance with the one member, one vote cooperative principle.

The emergence of all these cooperative supermarkets demonstrates the commercial argument of being cooperative. They are implementing the cooperative model differently and were able to adapt it to respond to the needs of their own communities. With more and more consumers keen to buy organic products from local producers, as well as own and run their own supermarkets, the cooperative participative supermarket trend is likely to continue.

Photo: Bees Coop in Belgium