S-COOP: Alternative economic systems / by Nick Ierodiaconou

Last night some of us went to S-Coop, the last in Whitechapel Gallery’s Street art commissions. Mexican artist Minerva Cuevas has created a new currency, the S-COOP, which is being circulated by Petticoat Lane Traders and can then be exchanged for ice-cream. You can buy the S-COOP coins for £1.20 or receive them as part of your change from participating market traders. When received as change, you are rewarded for your custom with a 20p discount.

The project is interesting as it explores an alternative economic system. This model dates back to the 1900s when English co-operative societies operated a non state-sanctioned tender (commodity tokens) that were exchanged for goods. Members would go into their society’s shops to buy pre-paid tokens, commonly for specific commodities such as milk, bread or coal, and use the token to pay for deliveries. Some of the advantages were: paying for deliveries without the need for cash and change, budgeting (especially useful when times are hard) and the amount spent would be registered for dividend payments.

Cuevas touched on the loyalty reward model with her 20p reduction for customers. In co-operative societies the profits from the shop were shared with their members in the form of a dividend. The profits were distributed in proportion to the amount each member spent in the store. In the 1930s, members would often receive 15p for each pound they spent. The tokens would then be exchanged when the dividend was distributed - on ‘Divi Day’. Over the years each individual co-operative society has adapted the dividend system in different ways. Some use the traditional system, others distribute the dividend to community groups – I think this is what Waitrose does, customers vote for their chosen cause with a token.

The only supermarket in my hometown is a co-operative society and my parents benefit financially - by being members they receive dividend vouchers each year to spend in store (until a recent merger these were approx £600). In addition to the loyalty reward, also operated by other supermarkets, their membership brings a degree of empowerment, eg going to the AGM and challenging the over-use of packing or getting your local store to stop changing the lay-out! May be not operating at it full potential… but in these current times businesses may have to think about the added value they offer to keep customers.