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The social value of the local supermarket

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Photo by Mike Wilson

Before there were paved highways and fast cars, before people could affordably go to any place anywhere in the world, and before every major city was connected through airports, people only knew the world through their communities. It used to be that every small, rural town had only the essentials of daily living: a grocer or wet market to buy food, a community school for education, a post office, maybe a few shops to buy hardware or clothes, and maybe one or two places to socialize over a meal, a drink or common faith.

In simpler times, it was very easy for a local resident in a community to know everybody’s name. How could they not when there were so few places available for people to go and gather?

For people today, who are accustomed to fast, urban lifestyles and relative anonymity due to living in a city of millions, it would seem that that kind of life is a thing of the past. However, as supermarkets of the 21st century adopt new retail models that could respond to new shopping habits, there may be a possibility of communities returning to that tight-knit way of living.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in the UK, found that through research into the impact of supermarkets on the community, new retail models could generate a social value for strengthening communities.

“With almost 50 million retail transactions in the UK each day, few businesses have as many opportunities to interact face-to-face with the public as large shops,” Mr. Taylor wrote for The Guardian.

“Each week, a large supermarket will typically have 50,000 customers. Yet, despite the importance of the retail sector, and the impact of the growth of online shopping on our habits and high streets, it has been neglected as a subject for wider social research.”

Filling in this gap could be beneficial to society as more and more of people’s social lives are abandoning physical spaces in favor of online ones. For instance, the rise of online dating apps and Web sites are biting into the need for people to socialize in public. Users of social media Web sites are building entire communities spanning the globe based on similar interests and ideas, while remote working jobs are eliminating an entire dimension of social interaction from people’s lives entirely.

“As many physical spaces for public connection are closed down, supermarkets could provide a new setting for people to engage with each other and with key social, economic and environmental challenges,” Mr. Taylor wrote.

“As large stores are reformatted to serve mobile-connected customers, there is a chance to reimagine the form and function of ‘big box’ retail.”

The RSA, which seeks to ‘enrich society through ideas and action’, has been exploring the role of the retail sector in connecting and strengthening communities. New research by the organization highlights the opportunities for large stores to host and lead projects, programmes and activities which generate social value.

One such way that national retailers can deliver impact at scale, according to the research, is by building trust and loyalty from local customers on a store-by-store basis.

“Community ventures will be effective when they are developed through partnerships with local charities, voluntary groups and public sector agencies,” Mr. Taylor wrote.

“This could mean sharing data between businesses and public authorities; offering new services in store for citizens and entrepreneurs, bringing a range of public service interactions into the store or better utilizing physical space such as car parks for commercial and community use.”

He added that as an anchoring institution that is reliant on local people for business and work force, large retailers should take the lead in local affairs, through initiatives like serving as a hub for volunteer recruitment or services for start-ups and small businesses, or offering solutions to community problems like opening pharmacies and access to educational materials.

“There is potential, too, for retailers to coordinate with public agencies,” Mr. Taylor noted.

Supermarkets, he explained, in cooperation with the government, can make a difference in tackling issues of public concern like obesity, pollution, and even overcrowding. Retail chains also have the opportunity to convey public announcements, offering a potential platform for engaging people directly on public issues.

“For most households, retailers sit alongside utility companies as the biggest recipients of our cash. Price, quality and convenience are key customer values but the retail giants now have the opportunity for a benign competition to be the greatest provider of additional local social capacity,” he wrote.

“To put all this into practice, stores need the power and permission to experiment in engaging with the customers and wider public. Local and central government, along with charities and third sector providers, need to get involved. Through a prolonged period of austerity, the contribution of businesses locally in developing community ventures with social and environmental benefits could be vital.” — Bjorn Biel M. Beltran