A community ethos: Co-Op

A community ethos: Co-Op

Having started her Co-op journey with a part-time student job 30 years ago, it’s fair to say Briege Ashley knows the company she is now an area manager for from the ground up.

She tells Neighbourhood Retailer how the retail bug bit and how serving the community still drives her.

When the chance came round for Briege Ashley to write the final chapter for her Co-op journey as home there was only one hurdle, even if it was a sizeable one… would her husband and teenage children go for it?

Thankfully they did and for the past seven years she’s been back in her home of Strabane, having started her retail career in the north west of England, where the company itself began life back in 1844.

“This is my 30th year with the Co-op. I ended up going to university in Manchester after going through Clearing. After the first term I thought to myself ‘I’ve no money and can’t do a lot’, so I got a part-time job with the Co-Op. It was a great time to be a student in Manchester but no fun if you didn’t have any money,” explained Briege.

Briege continued working in her local store throughout university (where she studied Information Management) and when she wrapped up her degree there came a major fork in the road.

“I finished my finals on the Friday and started as an assistant manager on the Monday and six months later I was store manager,” she told Neighbourhood Retailer.

“Four years later I was promoted to area manager and I’ve done that in the likes of Warrington, St Helen’s, Macclesfield. Our head office is there in Rochdale and it is where we were born.”

Rugby religion

Briege, a natural people person, even acquainted herself with Rugby League (a religion in that part of the world) to make Monday morning conversations with colleagues a bit easier.

“I was area manager over there for a number of years and seven years ago the opportunity came up for me to move back home to Northern Ireland,” she said.

“I had a husband and two teenage children to think about but fortunately they supported me. My husband is a Manchester lad and was working in local politics and decided the quality of life here and with the kids the age they were the timing was perfect.”

With 26 stores spread throughout Northern Ireland the area manager load is spread between Briege and her colleague Declan Kavanagh, as she explained.

“I look after 12 in the north of Northern Ireland, and he looks after the others. The job is about looking after the customer and driving commercial within each store but ultimately both of those are driven by the colleagues I have to look after.

“My motto has always been ‘get the people right and the rest will follow’. As you know the people of Northern Ireland are just fabulous and my reward comes from seeing people better themselves, giving themselves a better quality of life and also doing what we can in the communities where we are based.

“The colleagues are the face of Co-op and how they treat our customer dictates if the customer returns. It’s about serving the customers and serving them well.”

On the move

While there are currently no plans to expand the number of Co-op stores in Northern Ireland the company is not exactly standing still in 2022, as Briege explained.

“We continue to develop the offer and ensure we create a compelling reason to come to the Co-op.

“A huge area is the rollout of E-commerce for us. We have our own online shop which launched in 2019 and has been rolled out at pace and all Co-op groceries are available through the Deliveroo platform in a number of stores in Northern Ireland along with our own online shop. That offers a combination of home delivery within two hours or a click-and-collect, both of which were extremely beneficial when it came to Covid.

“We are also looking at different partnerships in terms of what makes the customer cross the threshold, so we have partnerships with Hermes in several stores which brings in additional footfall and Amazon in a number of stores and John Lewis, which is in progress as we speak. With no John Lews here in Northern Ireland we expect that to prove extremely popular.”

Brexit too has thrown up countless challenges for retailers with the Co-op team doing all they can not to pass the various problems onto customers when it comes to paying for their groceries.

Briege told Neighbourhood Retailer: “I know our team in Manchester worked extremely hard throughout all of this and there is a lot of volatility in the marketplace which has driven costs, not just with Brexit but also Covid.

“To be a responsible retailer within the community we have to work very hard to make sure the impact is monitored and that we are not passing that to customers as much as possible, trying to mitigate and absorb that cost as much as we can.

“It is an unknown factor and will likely continue to be for some time to come.”

Fighting inflation

And Briege explains that the fight against inflationary pressures is not just about keeping the budget retailers but also boosting local producers along the way.

“We have always been committed in terms of our convenience offer, our customers want to shop local, and we serve that purpose fantastically,” she told Neighbourhood Retailer.

“The flip of that is all the local products that we source, which is helping the local economy and keeping costs down. for consumers and ourselves.

“If you take the logistic costs alone, we have our own depot in Carrickfergus to stock local products which keeps costs down in terms of transport.”

Of course looming large over every issue, including Brexit, in the past two years has been Covid and Briege could not be more proud of the work her colleagues have done throughout.

“It has had a massive impact on retail, the biggest I’ve seen in three decades. People valued their local store even more and our colleagues were not just seen as shop workers they were seen as a lifeline.

“I could give you numerous examples of customers phoning in orders to stores and colleagues dropping them off on the way home, or someone putting up on Facebook that they needed help and our colleagues responding. They were incredible in terms of serving the vulnerable and it is at times like this that you see the true grit of the people that work you.

Building communities

“There is nothing like a pandemic to bring people together. That may have been the only positive from Covid, it helped build communities again and helped show the fantastic people looking out for one another.”

And even with staff off ill or isolating the Co-op made sure their local stores stayed open to serve throughout.

“Myself and my colleagues worked all the way through this, trying to make our stores as safe as possible and stepping up to cover one another’s shift when people were ill or isolating,” explained Briege.

“With stores in which there are a small number of colleagues it has been difficult, but it has again proven the grit and determination to serve the community they work in.

“We have a big lift in the communities in term of our Membership offering and the money we pay out to causes every year, so I think the link is already there and it came naturally to our colleagues.”

Unique proposition

Indeed, that Membership Account is one of the things that makes the Co-op  unique, unlocking 2p in every pound spent into shoppers’  membership wallets with the company donating the same to a local causes fund.

“It’s where I get my energy from,” said Briege. “Every local community will have three causes. Around 40 causes in Northern Ireland benefit every year, the likes of Community Search and Rescue, Survivors of Suicide, and the Kevin Bell Repatriation Fund. We have celebration payday in November for the causes.

“We have also done quite a bit here with Cash for Kids. We’ve hosted collection points at Christmas and raised £10,000 for them in June 2019.  Our Co-op charity partner this year is around mental health and that’s Inspire so it’s great that all the money collected in our stores here is going to a Northern Ireland charity .

“Covid has only made the problem worse, with the likes of North Belfast already having the highest suicide rate among young men in Europe. We wanted to a make real difference in the communities we serve.

“We also have Food Share partners in the majority of stores, ensuring food is not wasted and helping those who need help the most.”

Retail bug

Briege admits that her route into retail was at first driven by necessity rather than desire but concedes that she has long since been “bitten by the retail bug”.

“To be honest I had not got anything lined up after Uni and was ready to come home but when they offered me the assistant manager job I thought ‘I must be alright at this’.

“The offer of the management position six months later was a fork in the road and I was doing a job that I was enjoying. The retail bug got me and as I a continued to be stretched and became an area manager the thought of going home left me.”

Now that she is back however, she’s glad to be able to make some lasting memories with her parents, her husband and her children.

“I live a rural life outside Strabane and it’s just nice to come home and go shopping with your mum or to take your dad wherever it is.

“I have a son at Queen’s and a daughter doing her A Levels. There’s a fair bit of taxiing her at the weekends and just de-stressing.”

And what of her future ambitions? “Just to keep making a difference for our customers here in the country that I love.”

To read the full feature in the Neighbourhood Retailer yearbook, click HERE.