Regional proximity in a digital world – is that even possible?
The digital world connects people across the globe and algorithms replace face-to-face interaction. Cooperatives must try to embrace digitalisation while staying close to their members and clients. The 23rd IGA annual conference in Innsbruck showed how this dilemma can be overcome.
“While many face the challenge of digitalisation with scepticism and fear, others rise to it with courage. We would like to generate new ideas on how cooperatives can shape digitalisation in a way that adds value for all”, said Arnulf Perkounigg, IGA chairman at the start of the conference, which revolved around the question of whether regional proximity could be preserved in a digital world.
The multichannel approach in specialist trade
“What would digitalisation be without the human element?”, Alfred Kapfer, CEO of electronics retailer Expert Austria, replied to the initial question. His 165 members consult, install, repair and deliver to their customers’ homes. “Expertise, service, kindness and good morale are still the keys to success”, said Kapfer. As with the banking sector, the client ultimately chooses the distribution channel – offline, online or a mixture of both.
Expert reacted to this with a clever multichannel strategy: the local retailers each manage their own web presence, but in the background, they can choose their individual portfolio from the Expert headquarters’ product range. The headquarters also take care of operations, payment processing, accounting and the customer hotline. What is particularly important when it comes to such a solution? “Successful multichannelling requires brains, extensive marketing activities and a coordinated approach from all those involved. However, the most important thing is to treat online customers in a way that makes them feel equally as appreciated as onsite customers!”, Kapfer advised.
Platforms for tax consultants and farmers
“Huge portals are taking over value creation and reduce many small businesses to mere suppliers”, warned Stefan Wunram, head consultant at Datev. The successful IT cooperative of tax consultants from Nuremberg chose a completely new approach towards the Internet. Private customers without a tax consultant can now process their tax returns on a separate Datev Internet platform. Does that mean that the cooperative is competing with its own members? “Not really”, says Wunram: “We are tapping into new target groups to which we can offer a tax consultant through the platform, if needs be. This ensures that our members stay fit for the future.”
Therese Fiegl, founder of the “Bauernkiste” box containing produce from local farmers, wants to secure future growth for regional farming products. Her direct digital marketing platform connects customers with local farmers. Around 60 farmers with 400 products are already enrolled on the platform, which also takes care of logistics and invoicing. Both parties benefit from the offer: customers receive fresh produce directly from the farmers delivered to their homes and farmers benefit from better prices for their high-quality products. “The Internet helps us to keep administration lean”, said Fiegl.
Regionality as a success factor for banks
According to Johannes Ortner, chairman of the Raiffeisen-Landesbank Tirol, regional proximity in the digital world is also the only key to success for cooperative banks. “We should avoid trying to copy the digital giants. We need to focus on our own strengths: customer proximity, personal relationships and trust”, explained the banker, also highlighting the emotional aspect of the business. According to brain researchers, a feeling of belonging, active participation and meaningful action give us a sense of wellbeing. He concludes: “That is exactly what cooperatives offer.”
Awards for young cooperative researchers
At the end of the IGA conference, two prizes were awarded for exceptional academic papers written by two young researchers. The recipients were Peter Suter, who was honoured for his empirical analysis of volunteer work in Swiss housing cooperatives, and Sana Wittmann, who received the award for her paper on the fall of the Bavarian Raiffeisen Central Bank in 1986 and the lessons learned.
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