In some lights, the for-profit enterprise looks like a form of "lean forward" entertainment, driven by an intense social purpose.
The venture invites people to interact with its service through the contract of an annual subscription; immerse themselves in its offer, by donating their time as a volunteer; and through this, member/customers win an immediate return on their investment, including a discount on the cost of their shopping and a local grocery store which is their own.
The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts in the UK recently financed Secret Sauce, a book which tells the story of The People's Supermarket and carries some useful first advice to people who would like to cook up a similar social venture.
Since The People's Supermarket opened its doors in Spring 2010, it has supplied over 6000 customers each week with groceries, and served 700 takeaway meals from stock which would otherwise have gone to waste. The venture employs 17 staff, has trained over 25 people who were previously unemployed and turned over £1.2m in sales last year (Euro 1.5m/$1.9m).
What are some of the ingredients which have enabled the start-up to combine interactive, immediate and immersive experience?
Here is some headline advice from the book's closing chapter:
- Gather a group of exceptionally driven people with diverse and practical professional skills and an ethical commitment to the cause
- Find business partners who are as determined as you to make the venture happen
- In the development phase of the venture, operate as a Do-ocracy
- Run a business first, ‘engine’ of ethics second, and support it with an integrated financial forecast model and weekly reporting
- Foster a sense of belonging and mutual trust
- Allow people to participate on their own terms
- 'S' is for solvency - and stare it in the face
The People's Supermarket converted recently from an Industrial and Provident Society to a Benefit Corporation, allowing for more flexible management and easier external investment; and the last of its founders stepped aside, allowing for a new generation of members to take the lead.
The venture also launched a partnership with international convenience store chain SPAR, who has become its main wholesale grocery supplier and a key investor in the next stage of business development.
An interactive, immediate, immersive for-profit business with social objectives has now become a commercial prototype, ripening perhaps for more mainstream franchise, from its birth as a quirky, disruptive innovation.