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Co-op eyes 8 million members by 2030 in vote of confidence for mutual business model

The Co-op doubled down on plans to boost its membership across the rest of the decade today, in a strong vote of confidence in the UK’s beleaguered mutual movement (PA)
The Co-op doubled down on plans to boost its membership across the rest of the decade today, in a strong vote of confidence in the UK’s beleaguered mutual movement (PA)

The Co-op doubled down on plans to boost its membership across the rest of the decade today, in a strong vote of confidence in the UK’s beleaguered mutual movement.

The grocery chain is one of the UK’s best-known and longest-standing companies to be owned by members not shareholders. It set its sights on signing up eight million members by 2030, having taken the number past five million last year.

It added more than one million card-carrying Co-op member-owners in 2023, more than in the previous two years combined, its chief executive Shirine Khoury-Haq said. She is eyeing the “substantial” increase by the start of the next decade to help stay “firmly in control of our Co-op and our destiny” she said today.

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Khoury-Haq told the Standard she hoped to raise the eight million target: “The vote of confidence on the future is on the basis of having met a four-year target in one year. And I very much hope that I’ll up it again.”

It costs £1 to sign up, for personalised deals as well as general discounts called “member prices”.

One current offer includes a £9 ready-meal deal which buys two main and side dishes and a drink, as well as free film streamed on Amazon Prime.

There was a 52% increase in members under the age of 25, and Khoury-Haq said these new members “have come our way” due to “owning a business that they have a voice in”. The Co-op runs about 2,400 food shops across the UK, as well as 800 funeral homes.

It also provides insurance services. Its ambitious target for more members comes at a difficult time for other firms owned by employees or members, rather than investors.

John Lewis, the department store chain which is owned by its staff, recently ruled out selling off its Waitrose food business. But it also had to hold off from paying out its famed annual profit-related employee bonus — for just the third time in its history — as it struggled to make money amid stark competition across the high street and with online giants such as Amazon.

With cuts of £900 million being chased by 2028 — likely to include job losses — John Lewis’s chair, Dame Sharon White, announced that she would leave by February of next year.

Meanwhile, the Nationwide building society has courted controversy by buying Virgin Money for £2.9 billion. Its new chief executive, Debbie Crosbie, has faced criticism that the transformative deal used members’ capital to chase scale in an industry from which it could stand apart due to its different ownership structure.

The Co-op has been slimming down, rather than bulking up. It disposed of the bank that bears its name in 2017. And it completed the disposal of its petrol forecourts business in October 2022. For 2023, underlying operating profit stripping the petrol business out of comparisons, fell to £468 million from £473 million.

Net debt dropped by £240million after the sale, to £82 million.

On the group’s current position, Khoury-Haq said: “The work that we have undertaken over the past two years to significantly strengthen the financial position has paid off. 2024 marks a new era … which finally places member ownership back at the heart of our success.