Unicorn Grocery Co-operative, Manchester

Unicorn was founded in 1996 by a group of people who wanted a different and better option for doing their shopping than the supermarkets, and they created a place they wanted to shop in themselves – where good quality, wholesome tasty food was sold at decent prices, competitive with the supermarkets, a shop where products were sourced and sold with care for where they'd come from, how they were produced, and how they impacted on people, animals and the planet.

Since its opening in 1996, Unicorn has gone on to become the largest independent wholefood shop in the UK, and as of 2014, had a turnover of over £5 million. This unusual rate of growth has been made possible by Unicorn’s unique business model, which differs significantly from that of most high street wholefood shops and has created a genuine alternative to the supermarket for the weekly shop.

The Unicorn model in a nutshell

  • Wholefood grocery store (not a healthfood shop)
  • Fresh, wholesome, quality produce
  • Direct and bulk buying, alongside minimal handling
  • Large premises (at least 400m²) with half retail, half warehouse area
  • Sourcing based on clear nutritional and ethical criteria
  • Broad range of products with a focus on staple cooking ingredients
  • Prices (like for like) competitive with supermarkets
  • Value added through on-site packing (and later, fresh-cooked food)
  • Good relationships with suppliers (honest trading and prompt payment)
  • Co-operative ownership with a flat management structure
  • Dedicated staff, shared principles underpinning all business decisions
  • Strong customer loyalty based on trust and clear, consistent ethics
  • Accessible, friendly image

Unicorn’s fundamental difference is one of scale and associated buying power. Although the site has expanded significantly since opening, it was opened in a building several times the size of most wholefood shops, perhaps around the size of a Tesco Express. The basic business model is based on buying in bulk, and where possible, direct from manufacturers. This allows for prices that compare to those offered by the supermarkets.

This model requires a large premises (at least 400m²) with half the space given over to storage. It also requires car parking, and crucially, access for forklift trucks, to bring full pallets of stock into the warehouse.

A competitively-priced, broad-ranging but basic offering was the focus in the early days. In its early years Unicorn had nothing like its current selection – they wheeled pallets of one type of orange juice, beer or baked beans straight onto the shop floor. The shop was basic, and little was spent on the fit-out.

It had all begun in 1994, when two Manchester residents were introduced to each other by a member of Daily Bread Co-operative in Cambridge. Both had expressed an interest in establishing a similar worker co-operative enterprise in Manchester, and meetings began in earnest in 1995.

Daily Bread provided various facts and figures to help develop a business plan, and around this time the working name was chosen. Over the next few months, the business plan and statement of purpose were developed. Meetings were held with various bodies to look into grants and financial support – many of whom were pessimistic that Unicorn would find the cash to get off the ground! They also researched planning permission, business start-up grants, business rates and so on.

By the summer of 1995 they were in a position to register Unicorn, done on 8th August 1995. It was registered as an Industrial and Provident Society, with assistance from ICOM (now part of Co-ops UK). At this time, the Business Plan was also finished and distributed to those who might make grants or invest in loanstock*.

As it turned out, grants were tricky to come by for a not-yet-existing worker co-op, so finance was raised via loans and loanstock – a form of a fixed-term bond raised from supporters, members and potential customers. Eventually, funds of around £30,000 were secured through loanstock, with a further £17,500 raised through a loan from ICOF (now Co-operative and Community Finance). Together, these furnished Unicorn with start-up capital of around £47,500.

Because of the fairly taxing requirements of the business model, finding a site was the most time-consuming element of Unicorn’s start-up. It took over a year of searching to find a building combining enough space, car parking and forklift access. Finally, a former chain factory in the suburb of Chorlton was located, and a lease agreed with the owners for part of the ground floor.

After 18 months of research, legwork and hard, unpaid graft from its founder members and volunteers, Unicorn opened on 28th September 1996.

** See Co-operatives UK for information on financing a co-operative business