How we went from a 3-week discovery to 14 potential alphas

Running a food shop is simple in theory. You need to make sure there’s food on the shelves, there are colleagues available to help customers if they need it, and you’ve got to make sure customers can hand over their money when they want to buy something.

In fact, running a branch of a supermarket is pretty complicated. Even within that first statement, ‘make sure there’s food on shelves’, there’s a whirlwind of complexity. Getting food on the shelves involves logistics like knowing when a delivery is arriving, best before dates and in house baking.

At the beginning of March we completed a 3-week discovery to find out how we could make life simpler for our colleagues in stores. After the success of the Product Range Finder, one of our previous alphas, we wanted to find other opportunities for us to help. Now, we’re at the end of the discovery phase and we’ve proposed 14 alphas that we could work on.

Here’s how we got to this point.

Getting the right team together

We needed the right mix of people working together. It was just as important for us to collaborate with people with first-hand experience of the shop floor as it was for us to work with people with digital skills. The ‘Leading the way’ team from the Food business joined us. The purpose of their group is to help colleagues ‘go back to being shopkeepers’ by taking away some of the administration involved in running a store. Four of them joined the Co-op Digital team for the whole 3 weeks, and importantly, 3 of them had been area managers or shop managers within the last 12 months. Like we did for the first 3 Food alphas, we teamed up with digital product studio ustwo too.

Learning how things work in store

During week 1, we had around 20 colleagues from the Leading the way team come and work in Federation House to map out what happens in a Co-op store, and what goes into running one day to day.

We learnt about everything from walking around the store in the morning, ‘facing up products’ and cashing up, about what happens to unsold magazines when the issue expires, and a whole lot more. The purpose of the workshop was to uncover any assumptions. Doing this meant that anyone who didn’t have first-hand experience in store could get a decent understanding of how things work which in turn meant that our research would be less biased and more thorough.

Using filters to figure out potential

In our first week we also set up some team principles and some filters to evaluate each alpha idea on.

“Yes” ideas were ideas that we thought were good enough to carry forward to the alpha phase. Each one would:

  • have a clear user need
  • have potential for lasting value
  • empower colleagues and decentralise processes
  • keep colleagues on the shop floor

On the other hand, we had some ideas we wanted to ditch. “No” ideas were the ones that:

  • had a poor effort to value ratio
  • would add to colleagues’ workloads
  • didn’t actually need a digital solution

image shows 3 columns of post-it notes. The first column shows criteria for a 'yes' idea, the second for a 'no' idea and the third for ideas that might be good to pursue at a later date.

Week 2 and crossing the half-way point

In the second week of the discovery we spent around 30 hours in store doing ‘Lend a hand’ which is exactly how it sounds: we lent a hand to colleagues. We interviewed them and their store managers in different parts of the country. We also interviewed customers, to find out what they like about Co-op, and what they think could be improved.

After each store visit and interview, we shared what we’d learnt with the rest of the team, and we started to see themes emerge from the things we were seeing and hearing from colleagues.

image shows 3 colleagues sharing their feedback and arranging post-its on a wall.

We used those themes to create some prompting questions which we then asked over 60 Food colleagues at ‘sketching sessions’. For example, one of the themes that came out of the feedback was that it’s not always clear to colleagues how they can progress their career at the Co-op, so we asked colleagues at the sketching sessions “how can we help staff to progress?” They’d then draw something in response.

Here’s an example sketch in response to the question, “how can we sign up customers for membership at the store?” 

Sketch from colleague Phil Hesketh shows a machine that you can put your temporary card into, a screen where you choose the cause you'd like to support, and a real card will popping out of the bottom of the machine.

By the end of the sessions, colleagues had produced a whopping 562 sketches.

Getting our priorities straight

We put them all through the filter and managed to whittle the ideas for solutions down to 41. Then we fleshed them out, before prioritising them by asking:

  1. How risky is the idea?
  2. How much evidence for the opportunity do we have?

We figured the sweet spot was where we had both evidence and low risk. After looking at the 41 ideas through that lens, we got to 14 – a more manageable number!

Where we’re at now

Last week we presented back our ideas to the wider team.

group of colleagues from across the Co-op and ustwo gathered around whiteboards to hear the feedback on the 14 potential alphas.

Now it’s up to the Leading the way team to figure out which they want to go forward with, because we won’t be doing 14 alphas all at once. Just like last year’s discovery, we found a lot of opportunities, but we know we’ll solve a problem best if we can solve them one at a time.

Anna Goss
Product lead

Helping Food colleagues get out of the office and onto the shop floor

At Co-op Digital we’re building products and services that’ll improve efficiency in the wider Co-op Group. Part of this is figuring out how we can give more time back to our Food colleagues in stores so they can spend time helping customers instead of shuffling handfuls of paperwork in their office. Basically, we want to make things things more predictable ie, knowing when a delivery will arrive so that colleagues can plan and use their time better.

Teaming up with ustwo

We brought in ustwo, a digital product studio, to help. At that point we needed more people power and ustwo have excellent experience in putting user needs at the forefront of everything they do. Their ethical values also made them a brilliant match for us.

Researching and learning during discovery

Our goal for discovery was to produce a set of alphas that would potentially benefit the food business. We spent time with and interviewed customers as well as our Food colleagues including store managers, colleague team members and depot managers.

We learnt about the Food business at incredible speed through qualitative and quantitative research and design techniques such as sketching. Our interviews were sometimes focused and at other times wide ranging; sometimes they were in depth and at others they were vox pops. Spending time listening to colleagues on the phones in our call centres and seeing what happens on our internal help desk helped us learn a lot too.

We took what we’d learnt from our research and proposed alphas that might help with common problems we’d encountered throughout the discovery. In the end we worked on 3 alphas with ustwo. Last year, we blogged about the product range finder which was one of them.

Now we’re talking about another one: the delivery alerts alpha.

Initial scope of delivery alerts

We posed these questions:

Can we speed up delivery turnaround times?
Can we reduce queuing during busy times?

Starting simply and cheaply

We wondered if notifying a store of the arrival time of a truck would help make stores more efficient. So we set up a simple trial by asking a driver to use one of our cheap mobile phones to send a text message when he was approaching. Straight away we found that this was useful to stores so we felt confident that if we pursued this idea to the next stage, it’d be useful. So we built a more robust prototype that would test our theory further.

At this point we realised we were crossing paths with another team in Co-op working on putting black boxes into our delivery trucks that could provide us with the data we needed.  So whilst that work was coming together with the third party supplying the black box, we pivoted slightly to focus more on this question:

Can we make important shop bulletins available to everyone, quickly?

Building a digital dashboard

With the ease of a good agile team, the delivery alerts alpha became the store dashboard alpha because delivery alerts could be a part of something bigger. We built and trialled a store dashboard, a website running on an iPad.

image shows store dashboard including tasks (for example 'return match attax champions league products'), delivery times and news.

It shows our Food colleagues:

  • urgent or general tasks to be done
  • news or information from the Support Centre that colleagues should read

By now, we had around 15 stores in Manchester and London to use the digital dashboard as an information source. We chose a mixture of big and small, city and rural.

Image shows team leader Dan and store manager Craig from the Didsbury Road store looking at the store dashboard with Kim Morley out delivery manager. They're in the store.

Helping colleagues plan better

Once we had access to the data from the black boxes in the trucks, we built our delivery alerts module that sat in the bigger, more comprehensive dashboard. Then we broadened our trial to show colleagues when deliveries were going to arrive. With the dashboard they can see if their delivery truck was stuck in traffic. This meant they could plan ahead and use their time efficiently.

We got enough insight from the delivery alerts module and our tasks and news modules to calculate that it could give store managers up to 10% more time to spend on the shop floor.

Big thumbs up from colleagues

Naz at Faircross Parade Co-op said that knowing when deliveries will arrive is the main thing that would make the system helpful to him, because he could co-ordinate his team and the floor schedule. Co-ordinating better means that Naz can free up colleague time for other activity, like reducing queues at the tills.

Gemma from Taylor Road Co-op said that she could turn her deliveries around 10 minutes quicker using our dashboard. But it means so much more than that to her, knowing when her deliveries arrive means she can allocate tasks before and after the delivery to make her store run more efficiently.

If we take this idea forward, we’ll blog about our progress. In the meantime, you can sign up to the Co-op Digital blog.

Kim Morley
Delivery manager

Product Range Finder

Hello, I’m Claire Carroll. My teams speak to thousands of our members and customers every day in our member and customer contact centre.

A picture of Claire Carroll
Claire Carroll

One of the most common calls to our stores and our customer care team is whether or not a particular product is stocked in a store. Our stores stock slightly different products because:

  • they are different sizes
  • customers in different locations have different needs

When we get calls about what products are in a particular store, it takes the team a little time to find the answer. Advisers needed to look in a few different places for the information. The system we used was clunky, taking around 10 minutes to locate a store. Knowing it would take too long, advisers would often tell customers that they would need to call customers back. This was a poor experience for our members, customers and colleagues.

A few months ago, with their service design partner UsTwo, the digital team began a discovery with our Food business to choose 3 alpha projects.

hoto 05-07-2016, 11 05 30 am.jpg
Product Range Finder Show & Tell


One of the chosen alphas was Product Range Finder. The alpha project was to build a simple prototype, allowing my team to have a single tool to use when answering queries on product range, and to see if this tool improved our efficiency and experience.

The new prototype is much easier to use than the old system and provides more information. For example, it tells customers how many stores stock a particular product, and how many of those stores are in a 15 mile radius from them.

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Product Range Finder – showing list view of the products, and how many stores stock the listed product
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Product Range Finder – map view of stores that stock the product selected

We receive 200 queries a month about finding product ranges. The prototype saves us approximately 10 minutes on each one. This equates to an extra 7 hours a week.

We’ve found this prototype so invaluable that we requested changes are done out of hours. We didn’t want any down time during the day.

My team’s enjoyed working as part of the product team to test the prototype and suggest improvements. The advisors have loved being the experts and have been amazed how quickly their feedback has led to improvements to the system.

Next for the product team is the beta phase. They’ll make a technically sound, scalable version of the prototype. They’ll make sure the the data feeds are right, look at adding availability information, and take some steps towards making the tool customer facing.

Claire Carroll
Head of Member & Customer Services

Lending a hand in-store

On 21 September we launched our new membership, meaning our members now earn 5% back on Co-op products and services as well as 1% back for their community. Colleagues from our 1 Angel Square support centre lent a hand in-store, picking up the slack and keeping the stores running whilst frontline in-store colleagues took the time to explain our new membership to existing and potential members.


Michael helped Cardigan Road’s Co-op in Leeds

Cardigan Road is a really busy store and was in the busiest week of its trading year as the local freshers arrived the week before. Being back in-store reminded me of just how hard it is on the shop floor: breaking down outer cases, working trolleys of product and keeping the shelves stocked.

There’s a lovely team at Cardigan Road, with some very loyal, long-serving Co-op colleagues. It was really good to see our new packaging coming in too.

Nathan went to his local Co-op in Grappenhall

I spent a day with a great team who had really put the extra effort in to support our membership launch. Friday was delivery day and seeing how the team have to manage the store, customers and shift changes whilst not really knowing what time deliveries would arrive, gave me a great appreciation of how hard it is for store teams to balance everything.

I personally managed to sign up six new members in a 30 minute slot, when I wasn’t stacking shelves.

Catherine spent the day in Camley Street’s Co-op

Catherine Brien

Catherine with Umesh and his team

I spent the day stocking shelves, marking down product and serving customers on the tills. I was most struck by how much juggling my in-store colleagues need to do. Camley Street is a small store, so colleagues need to jump between shelves and tills minute by minute.

My high point of the day was signing up five new members. After an 8 hour shift I was exhausted, I have tremendous respect for my colleagues on the frontline day in, day out.

Russell went to Grosvenor Street’s Co-op in Rochdale

I was joined by Adam, a new starter learning the ropes. Adam didn’t know much about the Co-op, but was fascinated by membership and – by the end of his first shift – was a real advocate.

All the colleagues I met seemed genuinely pleased with our new brand, new membership and new products.

Sophy helped Glentworth Road’s Co-op in Morecambe

Store manager Dave had me helping out with stock reports when I arrived and soon I was chasing round the store hunting for products that had run out and for gaps on the shelves.

Dave, Linda and the rest of the team make me feel welcome. Still, the work is complex and I was slow, (I spent 15 minutes searching for a product called a ‘Sour Cup’ with the chilled ready-meals. It turned out to be a pot of mixed sweets.)

Linda visited West Street’s Co-op in Leek

I helped the team take in their deliveries and restock the shelves. The store manager, Christian, was excited to hear about the digital projects that came from our service design workshops with Food and how they could help stores and customers alike.

Ian went back to his home city, Peterborough, to help Werrington’s Co-op

It was great to see store manager Richard and Debbie, the store’s community pioneer, getting involved in events. The team found some extra budget to create a fantastic Halloween display and had begun planning an afternoon tea, with games and prizes, for the local community residents’ group, (which Richard was coming in to support on his day off.)

Richard has also been supporting other stores in the area which don’t currently have full store manager cover, some nearly an hour’s drive away. Richard stepped up without complaint, confident his team would continue to do what‘s right for customers and members in his absence.


Together colleagues from across our Co-op helped to inform existing members about their new membership and also recruited nearly 500,000 new members.

Provenance alpha

Hello, I’m Cathryn Higgs. As head of food policy I’m constantly looking to find ways we can live and breathe co-op values to help our customers and members.

Picture of Cathryn Higgs

The Co-op has always been a leader when it comes to championing the customer’s right to food that is formulated, manufactured and marketed in a way they can trust. The Rochdale Pioneers set up their own shops to protect workers and provide ordinary people with good food at fair prices at a time when food was regularly not what it said it was – bread flour bulked out with chalk, milk diluted with water and tea that really wasn’t made with tea leaves.

We’ve always campaigned for clearer food labelling and easy to understand nutrition labelling which led to us  introducing a front of pack scheme a decade ahead of the government’s traffic light system. We’re also proud to have been the first to label eggs intensively produced, a technically illegal step but which directly led to the law being changed allowing eggs to be labelled ‘from caged hens’.  

More well-known is our commitment to Fairtrade. We believe that everyone deserves to be treated fairly and take seriously our commitment to improving the lives of people in the communities we trade with. Which is why are still the only retailer to have converted all of our own brand tea, coffee, block chocolate, sugar, bananas and roses to Fairtrade and are proud to be the world’s largest retailer of Fairtrade wine.

Openness, honesty and social responsibility are part of our Co-op ethical values and we have a long history of taking action to support customers right to know about how the products they buy are made and sourced so that they can make an informed purchasing decision and the best choice for them personally.

Right to know – for the digital age?

We’ve started exploring ways we can deliver on this policy using digital and one of the ways we are doing this is by looking at partners who are already leading the way.

We’re working with Provenance.org, a social enterprise using blockchain technology to enable  transparency of data and verification of claims in supply chains, in order to  tell verifiable stories about where our food comes from and how it gets from source to our shops.

Picture of the Provenance alpha team

To do this, we are running an alpha to see what’s possible. Then we will consider the value this could offer our customers and members as part of our commitment to help them make decisions that fit their budget values and ethics.

We’ll update you on our progress as we go. 

Cathryn Higgs
Head of Food Policy

Service Design workshops in Co-op Food

Last week we began a series of Service Design workshops with our Food business.
We’re working on a two week discovery phase by the end of which we’ll pick three projects to take in Alpha.

The project is being led by myself and Jo Whitfield the Finance Director in Food. We’re working with UsTwo as our service design partner. Importantly, as the unit of delivery is the team, our team is made up of CoopDigital, Food and UsTwo.

The team have visited stores, spoken to our colleagues, spent some time in a depot and with our call centre. We’ve been out talking to customers and members.

Picture of food service design discovery work
Food Service Design discovery

There’s lots to cover so we’ve been sketching user journeys with colleagues from every part of the business. We’re looking for clear user needs that will make things easier for members, customers or colleagues.

Picture of sketches from food service design discovery work
Outputs from a sketching workshop

As we believe in working in the open, we’ll blog about our progress on this blog.

Ben Terrett
Group Design Director

The way we pay

This week our colleagues in food published a report on how people like to pay in their stores. Contactless payments (the ones you make by tapping your debit card or mobile phone on a card reader) in our stores have trebled annually to 11 million transactions a month. 

March-2016

The Findings

  • Customers on average shop with us 19 times over 3 months
  • 65% of our transactions over the last year have been with cash
  • 11 million contactless transactions in March 2016
  • Average basket size using chip & pin £18.16
  • Average basket size using contactless is £8.66
  • 65% of shoppers think that in under a decade all they will need is their phone to pay for daily goods

“The new technology is perfect for convenience stores as shoppers buy fewer items and speed is important to them.”

Cheryl Marshall Co-op Retail CIO  

Over the last year 65% of Co-op food transactions used cash, but it’s expected that contactless payments on cards and mobile phones will overtake it within the decade. 

Our research found that average spend for contactless is £8.66, versus £18.16 using chip-and-PIN. What explains the gap? Perhaps security concerns with new payment mechanisms, or the increased familiarity of Chip-and-PIN over contactless methods. Or simply that many customers aren’t aware that the contactless payment limit was raised to £30 in September 2015. Research by payment systems manufacturer Verifone says that paying by contactless card is faster than chip and pin or cash, a strong pointer that contactless card and mobile payments will eventually be commonplace, making convenience shopping even faster and easier.

You can read our convenience reports in full here: