For some time Toñi no longer serves behind the meat and sausage counter at the José Antonio – Covirán de Pulpí Supermarket (Almería), but when he worked there one of his tasks was to tell some clients which cheeses their husbands prefer. She, laughing, revolted against that: “Let’s see, do I have to know what cheese your husband likes?” She said to the women when they asked her. But despite the complaint, he knew, boy did he know. And Juan Díaz, his boss, knows the cookies his customers like. Many consult him, before more, when someone is ill and the neighbors want to bring him a detail. In Covirán de Pulpí, as in many others, they know more than they tell. And that is one of the strengths of the brand, the knowledge of its clients who, in general, are also its neighbors. Because in Spain, one in four supermarkets of less than 300 square meters – the Super neighborhood or proximity – they have a sign of the Covirán brand above the entrance.
The birth of this cooperative from Granada dates back to the spring of 1961, 60 years ago, when the owners of seven grocery stores in the capital joined forces to buy their merchandise at cheaper prices. Since then, the original seven members have become 2,427 cooperative members, of which almost 1,200 (48.6%) are women. And the brand, although it maintains the strong Granada accent with which it was born, has learned all the languages and accents of Spain. All but one, the Balearic Islands, the only autonomous community that has not yet arrived. But they have done it to places where no one else has gone. Thus, in 324 Spanish towns, Covirán is the only supermarket available to residents, avoiding commercial exclusion.
Covirán has also made an effort to learn Portuguese and is doing it at a good pace. In Portugal, according to data from the 2019 annual report, waiting to be presented in June 2020, it has 242 supermarkets and it is not uncommon for it to announce a couple of openings per month. The Covirán project in the Portuguese country is especially relevant in the future expansion plans of the brand. There it is present in all 18 districts and in the two autonomous regions of the Azores and Madeira archipelagos. And that’s where 10% of cooperative members come from. According to the company, they also occupy the second position in the local market.
In 2020, the firm liquidated the subsidiary that served it to operate in Morocco, where it had two pilot supermarkets. “The customs problems were great,” explains Patrocinio Contreras, president of the cooperative, who does not rule out trying again in the future. Despite everything, Covirán has a slight presence in Africa, specifically in Cape Verde and Equatorial Guinea, where some supermarkets are supplied with products from the Granada association.
Covirán, acronym for Cooperativa Virgen de las Angustias –patrona de Granada– has been a cooperative since its inception. That means, Patrocinio Contreras explains, that “each store is an independent business, we are not a franchise”. The entry into Covirán therefore implies the payment of the membership contribution to the cooperative. From there, its commitment is to source from one of the 30 logistics platforms, 27 in Spain and 3 in Portugal. Covirán has two business schools, one in Granada and the other in Portugal, in which cooperative members receive all kinds of management training, marketing, etc., so that, explains Contreras, they help train those who enter this business without previous experience.
The 2,427 cooperative members of the brand have set up 2,855 supermarkets that employ, according to the latest official data, 15,746 people (14% in Portugal). And all these supermarkets generated 1,463 million euros of gross sales in 2019. Patrocinio Contreras – who as a cooperative has four supermarkets in Montilla (Córdoba) – reports that Covirán is a pole of attraction for other businesses in small towns and tells of the case of a town in Albacete with 400 inhabitants where the opening of a supermarket of more than 500 square meters has attracted buyers from other municipalities who, finally, have led to the emergence of new businesses. “The benefit of Covirán in many places goes beyond the purchase,” concludes Contreras.
The future plans of the brand go through the transformation of the supermarkets into what they call “Covirán 10”, the new concept of accessible and specifically adapted spaces that they are going to deploy, that is, basically a modernization of the older establishments.
Regarding expansion, in addition to continuing with a firm step in Portugal, the brand looks to Latin America, The pandemic arrived shortly before buying plane tickets to travel there to study “proposals in Honduras, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and some other country more ”, says Contreras. “When mobility returns, we want to resume that and study options there because it is a very interesting market, where the cooperative field has many possibilities for development,” he continues. In Europe, he continues, “businessmen from the south of France have approached us and we will also analyze that route.” And “endogenously, within the brand, we want our partners to continue growing and in turn make the cooperative grow.”
Covirán’s sixty years, like life itself, have not been peaceful all the time. The last two years, in fact, have been the most turbulent they can remember at home. It all started, publicly at least, at the beginning of 2019, with the departure – dismissal communicated as a march by mutual agreement – of Luis Osuna, director of the company for 22 years of which 10 was president. After the march, Antonio Robles, honorary president at that time, resumed his position for a few months. Contreras assumed the presidency and had to face some cooperative members rebels that, according to a court ruling, they forged signatures to try to throw her and her council out. The problems are almost forgotten while waiting for some judicial blows, which will foreseeably be resolved against those who forged the signatures that are no longer in the cooperative. “It was necessary to make changes, give new impulses and generate more agility and that bothered some, but everything has been left behind.” Now, as always, it’s time to look at consumers because, as Contreras says, “our stores know their customers more by name than by algorithms.”
Differences between Spain and Portugal
Entering new markets offers unimagined surprises. In the case of Portugal, Patrocinio Contreras explains, it was detachment from brands. In Spain, he says, there is a certain balance between customers who prefer brands and promotions. “In Portugal, no. 90% of purchases in the supermarket are made of products on sale. Infidelity is great and that surprised us a lot at first ”, says the president. In addition, the market is very aggressive, so that if one chain lowers prices a lot, the others are forced to follow the same path, he says.