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Manchester: Cooperative Runs Successful Supermarket

by Redaktion (comments: 0)



The region round the industrial city Manchester in the north of England is not exactly regarded as a champion of organics. Nevertheless, a cooperative has succeeded in opening a 350 m² wholefood supermarket. Unicorn, that was founded twelve years ago, now has a turnover of  £ 4 million (6 million Euros*).

Picture: a busy day at Unicorn

Unicorn“Our sales concept revolves round providing fresh vegetables, wholesome foods and competitive pricing,” explains Adam York (43) who together with a local vicar developed the idea for a store in 1995.  Their starting point was the fact that very little wholefood was available in the region.  “So our aim was to ensure an attractive supply in the middle of Chorlton where everybody could come and shop.” No sooner said than done: both before and after the store was opened 20,000 flyers were delivered to households in the area all round Chorlton in the south of Manchester.  “We were ourselves surprised by the very positive response and I reckon that by now about a half of all households in this area come and shop in our store and we make every effort to keep prices market competitive. This means, that with a number of products like dried fruit and nuts as well as in the dry goods range are both on sale organic and conventional. But in the case of fruit and vegetables, the very popular porridge oats and wines the products are 100 % organic. The cooperative estimates that the proportion of organics in the total product range is 60 % - 70 %.


UnicornIt is a well known fact that there are few organic manufacturers in Britain, resulting in many products having to be imported. Organic beer from Bavaria is just one example. Imported processed products are as a rule quite a lot more expensive than goods produced in the UK. “If you want to buy organic products locally in this region for reasons of price and the environment, then you are almost compelled to take conventional goods as well,” explains Mr. York.


The well laid-out store stocks 3000 products and concentrates on vegan food: the customer searches in vain for meat, eggs, milk products and honey. Sugar is taboo as well for health reasons. You notice the cosmetics range is though recent expansion really rather limited.  “Lipsticks contain animal fats as well,” is the reason given by Britta Werner, herself a vegan from Hanover, who has been a member of staff for three years.


When you enter the store, you are struck by the huge display of fruit and vegetables. Even two or three mothers pushing  prams are not a problem because the department is on such a grand scale (picture). A large part of the produce on sale is supplied by seven vegetable farms in the Northwest region. Most of the fruit comes from abroad. Fruit and vegetables account for an above average 25 % of Unicorn’s total turnover.


UnicornQuite a high proportion of the fresh goods comes from Grebelands, a 1 ha vegetable growing project that has been run for five years by Mr York’s wife Lesley. The plot, where she and one employee grow mainly greens, is leased from the Council. Of particular importance are the roughly 15 different sorts of cut-and-come-again greens and vegetables that are on sale loose as salad mixes (picture). To make sure the leaves are tender, some of these crops are grown in netting tunnels that serve as protection from both the wind and insects. Another important factor is the attractive unblemished appearance of the leaves that are harvested every day. The range includes fennel leaves and special varieties of carrot and chard which add their splendour to the usual green and red salad leaves. According to season, other produce from the garden such as zucchini, different sorts of squashes and also young plants are on sale in the store as well.


UnicornThe word ‘cooperative’ does not refer to a group of consumers, which is most commonly found in Germany, but to a ‘workers’ cooperative’, with the store belonging to the 47 co-workers who run it. They all have voting rights and Adam York states that rarely do problems occur when it comes to taking decisions. Responsibilities, such as purchasing, the bakery goods department (picture) and fruit and vegetables, are mostly allocated to smaller operational groups.  Team leaders meet every two weeks to review trading and performance. The whole team running the store meets every three months.


UnicornMost goods come direct from the manufacturers or from import firms like Community Foods in London, Biona that sells organic products manufactured in Germany, and the wholesaler Essential in Bristol. Essential delivers five pallets of goods every two weeks. Whenever possible, non-packaged goods are bought in large quantities and then weighed by hand and bagged in the store’s own packing room (approximately 100 m²). Between three and six staff are occupied the whole day with this packaging and refilling the shelves.


Opening times in England vary a great deal. Whilst shops in the towns are often open 12 hours a day including Sundays, in the country shops usually close at 17.00 or 17.30. Unicorn comes in between: the store opens at 9.30 and closes at 19.00. The times for Sunday are 11.00 - 17.00 and on Mondays it is closed all day.


Adam YorkUnicorn’s shopping bag campaign proved very popular with shoppers: 50 000 coloured bags with handles and made of jute have been sold for £ 2 each over the last two years. “In England we were all desperately searching for alternatives after the government declared war on plastic shopping bags,” says Adam York (picture) who is delighted with the unexpected boost to sales.


An example of the problems connected with importing that can be found in many countries: apart from the long distances goods have to be transported and the involvement of intermediaries resulting in high prices, there are often no labels in the appropriate language. Putting a sticker over the original label or adding information on simple white stickers does not look very appealing.


UnicornSo far, Mr York has not been able to get a satisfactory supply of, for example, spreads. The new line with a high fruit content that Zwergenwiese are producing would be ideal for Unicorn. His question is: “Wouldn’t it make sense for an English partner to produce their goods under licence so that we would then have local producers in the UK?”


* Currency conversion:

The official exchange rate from British pounds to euros is 1:1.50. You soon find that in reality the purchasing power of the euro is low and actual prices are closer to an exchange rate of 1:1. For this reason the conversion data in respect of turnover can be deceptive. Turnover gives the impression of being quite a lot higher than it really is. However, what is a disadvantage for tourists can be an advantage for companies exporting to Britain.



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