The Co-op said it had "lost touch" with its customers and members

The Co-op said it had "lost touch" with its customers and members

Perhaps it sounds sceptical but, upon reading today (17 February) that The Co-operative Group has launched the "biggest piece of research and engagement in its history" my initial reaction was to dismiss the move as little more than PR fluff.

My instincts could well be wrong.

Reading the announcement that the UK retailer will ask the public at large to "have your say" on the shape it should take - and the pertinent issues facing communities around the UK - some remarkable admissions came to the fore.

The food-to-funeral services co-operative has not had a good year. The disastrous failure of the group's banking arm - which resulted from a GBP1.5bn hole in its balance sheet - is likely to make for some ugly reading when the company reports its full-year results at the end of next month.

To an extent, the company's food retail business has slipped under the radar - hiding in the shadow of the banking scandals (which included allegations of drug taking by former chair Paul Flowers among the tabloid fodder). But, in reality, The Co-op's retail sales have disappointed and its market share has suffered.

The latest data from Kantar Worldpanel, for the 12 weeks to 2 February, showed The Co-op's share of the UK grocery market dip from 6.2% a year earlier to 6.1%. That decline may not be as steep as in other recent periods but, in a market where three of the top four UK grocers are losing share, The Co-op still has some work to do in luring back consumers to its food stores.

The group has failed to deliver on the promise offered by its 2010 acquisition of the Somerfield chain, a deal that catapulted the group to the UK's fifth largest retailer. Scanning the just-food archives, one headline stood out - "We have never been so relevant", then-CEO Peter Marks proclaimed shortly after taking over Somerfield. The statement comes in stark contrast to today's comments from now-CEO Euan Sutherland.

"In recent years The Co-operative has lost touch with its customers and members and with the communities in which it operates - we haven't been listening," Sutherland conceeded. "If we are to successfully serve the communities in which we operate, to become as relevant today as we were in the past, we need to hear directly from the communities and the people we serve."

In a bid to re-engage with UK consumers, its owner-members and staff the company has launched a massive survey, which was developed in partnership with YouGov. It will be canvassing opinion on a wide array of issues from whether it should make political donations (having cancelled its controversial annual donation to the Labour Party) to how it should return profits to members.

This is a really smart move. If the company can successfully build a dialogue with consumers in a meaningful way, the group would build bridges that every marketer in today's digital word is working tirelessly to erect. And if - a big if - management then acts on these insights it will show consumers that the firm is committed to becoming relevant once again.

Through such open dialogue with the public, The Co-op is leveraging the attribute that makes it unique - its co-operative status. If it is successful the result will not only be a more appealing range of products and services. The move will enable The Co-op to cultivate a relationship with customers that goes far beyond the usual retailer loyalty schemes.