a fascinating example from childhood by Cooperantics member Nathan Brown:
Co-operation is a human instinct, or “how a bunch of children set up a consumer co-op”
Through the filter of hindsight, childhood in the 1970s seemed to involve the sun always shining and the school holidays lasting forever. We lived on a small estate of about 12 streets which was full of kids haring around on bikes or skateboards, and it also had a parade of shops. This is the story of how a few of those kids set up an enterprising little buying group on the street we lived on.
Being the last street before the wilderness that had once been farmland, our street was not quite the “fleabag” but being on the outskirts of the estate made us something of outsiders and it would be a lie to pretend there wasn’t an element of tribalism over which part of the estate you came from. This led to a form of solidarity – regardless of age or gender, we would generally play together because we lived on the same street. We all had pocket money in varying amounts and to the chagrin of our parents we all liked sweets. Whilst the local shop sold various sweets in an array of huge jars the minimum purchase was a quarter of a pound. You couldn’t buy just one or two of a particular sweet. They did have some “penny sweets” that could be bought individually but as nice as Mojos, Black Jacks, Fruit Salad and Flying Saucers were they didn’t offer the value that buying “proper sweets” by the quarter did.
So, without prompting from any adults we developed a “brand new idea”. Well, it was new to us! We would pool our resources and buy a range of sweets which we could all share. It’s quite possible that the inspiration came from a colouring book telling the story of the Rochdale Pioneers that my younger sister had been given by the Co-op at some point. We all contributed money and sent a delegation (a girl my age and me as we were the oldest and therefore allowed by our parents to walk to the shops) armed with a list.
When we returned, we set up the “shop”. Up went a garage door and out came a paste table. Bowls were “borrowed” from kitchens with or without parents’ knowledge. And then we set out our stock. Each member of the group counted out a variety of sweets into a bowl and we set about working out a price. For most, our pricing strategy (we didn’t call it that!) we divided the cost of the bag by the number of sweets in it and rounded up to the nearest half penny.
First we discussed if we should split the sweets equally, but then after some discussion we realised that this form of “socialism” wasn’t totally fair. Everyone had credit based on what they had contributed and this was written down. As we consumed sweets our credit was reduced accordingly. Once everyone had received sweets to the value of the money they had contributed there were some left over! We had magically created more sweets. We grouped together and discussed what to do. Our final decision was to divide these up equally, after all we had all “worked” all day long buying and selling to ourselves. The “shop” was a resounding success but only lasted a day. We resolved to repeat the process as soon as anyone had any pocket money to go back to the sweet shop. More than just a means to access a wider range of confectionery it had been fun! It kept us busy all day and we enjoyed pitching in and working together for mutual gain. The social aspect was as important as the transactions that took place. While we didn’t have any “stock” we set about improving our retail area, devising systems for how people should be served and generally planning.
What we didn’t recognise was that while we had enough money to buy in the stock (capital) there wasn’t any extra to spend as income – which would be a barrier to growth. And if we retained money to spend as income we wouldn’t have the capital. Our solution was simple – a loan from the bank of mum and dad. We would each ask for 2 weeks pocket money and explain why. 1 week for “investing” and 1 week for spending. And if it worked out as it had the previous week, we would still have money to spend for week 2. Our backers (parents) agreed. The cost to us was no pocket money the following week. A risk we were all prepared to take.
Other kids liked the idea and became “customers”. We gave them the option of contributing to the pot but some wanted sweets in return for cash right there and then. We didn’t mind that they hadn’t contributed in the first place as the money they spent still enabled us to buy in more stocks. We had liquidity! Two or three times a day there would be a bike run to buy in fresh supplies. The choice of what to buy was based on what we had left (stock), what sold well (demand) and what we wanted (member need). And if there were kids who didn’t have enough pocket money we would hold a meeting and decide whether or not to give away freebies. More often than not they “earnt” some sweets by working a shift on the shop front.
With our success came the capitalist attempt to take over. There was one family in our street who had money. They had a new car, the son of the family boasted about his pocket money and he always had the latest toys. They lived next door to where our “shop” was set up in the garage. The dad – who smoked cigars, as all good capitalists do, just to make sure we can recognise them – went to the cash and carry and bought whole jars of sweets. This competing venture had access to capital of a scale that we could only dream of. Up went their garage door. Out came their paste table. And they set out to compete with us. They failed. Yes, they sold some sweets, but we sold more than they did. Quite simply, kids enjoyed hanging round in a shared space. They liked the opportunity to play “shop keeper” and we had a core of customers who had a shared interest in making our venture a success.
The “shop” came to an end when it was subject to an attempted coup. The person whose garage it was decided they should be “in charge” and make the decisions as it was their garage. We didn’t like the thought of subjecting ourselves to a dictator – we were democratic and thrived on equality. First we tried to convince parents to let us use a different garage – no go, as everyone else’s was full of junk, dangerous chemicals or being used to fix a car. So, rather than work through the issues and resist this internal threat, we resorted to childish behaviour (we were children y’know): we wound the little enterprise up. All the remaining “stock” was distributed according to how much people still had credited to what was effectively their account. And what was left was divided up among everyone who had been buying.
A nice little tale and on reading it you may recognise most of the Co-operative Principles in action, but what does it prove? I like to think it shows that co-operating is more of a natural instinct than competing. A group of children, some of whom were as young as five, developed a way of working together pretty much in the spirit of the Co-operative Principles. Transfer this “childs play” example to a real business and the undoing of our sweetshop co-op also shows that maintaining the integrity of the co-op requires more than agreed ways of operating, it requires skills in how to work together to overcome problems. Co-operative skills!