By Scott Wright

SCOTMID chief executive John Brodie has the hailed the dedication shown by frontline grocery workers at the height of the pandemic as the co-operative reported a rise in first-half profit.

The Newbridge-based co-op underlined the benefit to the organisation’s Scotmid 177 convenience stores from the shift to local shopping during the crisis, with an increase in trading profit to £3.1 million for the 26 weeks ended July 25. This was up from £2.5m for the same period last year.

Mr Brodie praised frontline grocery colleagues for their commitment in rising to “unprecedented demand levels” as worried consumers engaged in panic buying in the early days of the pandemic. That came against the backdrop of record sickness levels and the introduction of social distancing and hygiene regimes to combat the spread of the virus.

However, trading was less productive at the co-operative’s 87-strong Semichem chain because of prolonged store closures necessitated by lockdown measures. While Scotmid did not provide precise details on the financial performance of Semichem, it reported that trading was “significantly down” at the chain.

The co-operative’s funeral division, meanwhile, came under strain as lockdown conditions placed stringent regulations on the operation of services, including on the number of people allowed to attend.

Turnover at Scotmid, which employs around 4,000 people across its grocery, Semichem, funerals and property divisions, increased by £6.7m to £197m over the period.

Mr Brodie said it had been a struggle in the early days of the pandemic to ensure trading in Scotmid stores could continue as it sourced personal protection equipment, till-point screens and signage to help manage the flow of customers in shops. But he praised his colleagues’ response.

Mr Brodie said: “One of the challenges we faced was having multiple businesses, each with different needs and priorities, and the constant flow of information from government.

“It was challenging at the peak of the crisis, and it was certainly challenging for our frontline colleagues who responded brilliantly in keeping our food stores open, and serving communities who were completely reliant on them at that time.”

Mr Brodie said the continued pattern of people working from home should continue to boost community stores. But he added that “on the flip side, we have seen our city centre stores impacted, particularly stores that have a higher proportion of food-on-the-go products. We have seen that decline, whereas local community stores have had the benefit”.

Asked if he anticipated reshuffling the store portfolio to reflect this trend, he said it was “too early”, noting: “We are six months into this, and we are a business that has been around for 160 years.

“We are in the middle of refurbishing a store in Edinburgh that has been with us for more than a century.”

He added: “Our first priority would be looking at the offer, and what’s in store to meet community needs, be that city centres or local communities.”

He does not anticipate panic buying returning to the extent seen at the height of lockdown, stating: “We haven’t seen the level we saw before. There is probably more confidence in supply chains.”

Scotmid acknowledged the support government has provided to business during the crisis, such as the furlough scheme and the one-year business rates holiday, which he said had helped offset the “significant costs” it faced to meet hygiene and social distancing protocols in stores.

He noted the rates relief was “particularly important in Semichem, which was closed for 10 weeks”. Mr Brodie added: “Even with that government support, the Semichem result was significantly down.”
Responding to the new Job Support Scheme announced by Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak yesterday, Mr Brodie said: “Any initiative to support the economy is good for retail and for local communities.”
Scotmid has previously expressed concern that Brexit could lead to difficulties for it on the island of Ireland, where people cross the border on a daily basis to shop in Semichem stores.
Asked about concerns that the Internal Market Bill proposed by the UK Government will create a hard border in Ireland, Mr Brodie said: “Yes I am concerned. A pandemic overlaid by Brexit is something we should all be concerned about.”
Scotmid expanded its regular charitable work, donating more than £160,000 to “alleviate hardship” through a Covid Community Fund. Mr Brodie said: “We worked with our charity partner to provide a free home delivery service to those shielding and also supported a wide range of activity to help food banks, frontline workers, the bereaved and homeless through the pandemic.”