Co-operative enjoys mutual benefits

THE CO-OPERATIVE Group, Britain&rsquo;s biggest mutually owned retailer, yesterday reported a 17 per cent rise in profits, boosted by strong food sales and acquisitions.<br /><br />The Co-op, which bought rival food retailer Somerfield and the Britannia Building Society earlier in the year, said pre-tax profits had jumped to &pound;229m in the six months to 25 July.<br /><br />The group said its financial services arm grew profits by 11 per cent to &pound;81.4m as consumers lost confidence in the wider banking sector.<br /><br />Chief executive Peter Marks said applications for new current accounts had jumped by 50 per cent in the last six months. It now has around 1.1m current account holders.<br /><br />It is also trialling bank branches within food shops in a strategy similar to one being adopted by rival Tesco. <br /><br />The group also said like-for-like food sales had risen by 7.3 per cent &ndash; outstripping the rest of the grocery market.<br /><br />Marks said that sales of its value lines had grown by 80 per cent. But he also said sales of Fairtrade products and its premium ranges grew 35 per cent in the period, in a sign that shoppers had the confidence to splash out on quality produce.<br /><br />Marks yesterday said that he believed the downturn had &ldquo;bottomed out &ndash; I don&rsquo;t think it&rsquo;s going to get much worse&rdquo;.<br /><br />But he added that he didn&rsquo;t predict a sharp recovery: &ldquo;It will be more of a u-shaped recovery where we&rsquo;ll bump along the bottom until 2010-2009.&rdquo;