What it’s like to work in a cooperative grocery store: Debbie Clarke of Unicorn Grocery

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Posted Dec 15 2019 by Debbie Clarke of Unicorn Grocery
Debbie Clarke of Unicorn cooperative grocery

Today I’m talking with Debbie Clarke of Unicorn Grocery – a cooperative grocery store in Manchester; and the thing I’m particularly interested in about Unicorn Grocery is that instead of wanting to become a huge chain, they’ve got a toolkit called ‘Grow your own Grocery’ to help people set up cooperative grocery stores in their own towns.

Dave Darby: Hi Debbie – have I got that right?

Debbie Clarke: That’s right, yes.

DD: So tell me more about Unicorn Grocery. When did it start?

DC: So we we opened our doors in 1996, in September actually. So we’ve just had our 23rd birthday. The original work was done by three people and then I think by opening day we had four or five co-op members and really, I think that their main motivation was to create a shop that they wanted to shop in. They didn’t feel like their needs were being met. They didn’t like what the supermarkets had to offer but they were also finding it quite expensive and difficult to source the food they wanted to eat in the more traditional small health food shops, which were doing a fantastic job but because of their size, they weren’t able to really compete on price and range with supermarkets. So the aim was to create an alternative to the supermarkets.

How big are you now?

We have about 68 co-op members now and we turned over around eight million this year.

And how are you doing, generally?

It’s great. We’ve had a lot of growth over our trading history – in terms of turnover, physical footprint, customer numbers etc. We were seeing double-digit growth in terms of turnover for a good five or six years. 10-15 percent growth, and to be honest that wasn’t sustainable. We couldn’t do that forever. We’re limited by lots of factors including the size of the site, the size of the car park and a size of the shop etc., things like that, but I think there’s been an explosion of interest in the stuff that we do – in more responsible trading practices; in eating wholesome food and cooking from scratch, and I think as well in supporting businesses that are challenging the status quo in terms of the kinds of economic relations and motivations. The reason we set up was for these principles of fair and sustainable trade, wholesome food, solidarity and cooperation – and I think those sorts of drivers are really interesting to people at the moment.

When did you get involved?

So I’ve been here 15 years now. I started quite soon after I left University. I’m from Manchester originally and I moved back and picked up some casual shifts here, thinking that this is very aligned with my values, but I thought I’d do it for six months, while I worked out what I wanted to do.

Were you’re interested in co-ops before Unicorn or was it Unicorn that got you into them?

I knew very little about co-ops. Funnily enough I had actually been part of a small consumer coop at university – a wholefood co-op buying group, but I didn’t really understand much about it. I was drawn to Unicorn really by the products, and how they were sourced. I’d studied international development and I was interested in fair trade and and how organic production had a better supply chain and less impact on people and planet and so on. So it was less about the co-op aspect – but as time has gone on, without a doubt that’s become absolutely crucial for me – probably the most important factor.

What’s it like?

It’s amazing. I absolutely love it and that’s why I’m still there. It’s an incredibly empowering way to work – to really feel ownership of the business, and so much pride that comes with being an owner of a business that we feel is doing a pretty decent job. It’s amazing working with all these people who have signed up for this collective ownership, and all these principles – the sense of all being in it together and having flat pay and not having a management hierarchy are really important. There’s a real sense of equality and equity.

How often are your meetings and how are decisions made?

A lot of things have always been devolved, and obviously as the number of co-op members has grown – 68 people couldn’t and shouldn’t be trying to make all the decisions together. So we have departments and teams which make rational decisions for their parts of the business. They meet fortnightly, and then there’s a group of representatives from those teams that also meets fortnightly. Then as a membership we meet between four and six times a year. We check in with each other and report and scrutinise each other’s activities; but to make the really big strategic decisions that are going to shape the way the business operates, and the decisions on things like employment policies that are going to affect all of us, we still make decisions on those together. We use consensus. Voting is a last resort – we’ve very rarely used it. We’re trying to make decisions that everybody can live with – not necessarily that are everybody’s first choice, because that isn’t possible. Learning how to do that is not always easy, and it’s sometimes quite time-consuming – but we do end up hopefully with decisions that aren’t making anyone feel marginalised or completely unheard. You could describe it as consensus or consent. There are slight differences, but there’s compromise involved, and an acceptance that you’re looking for something that everybody can live with.

I lived at Redfield community in Buckinghamshire for thirteen years and we used consensus decision-making. It just means that nothing ever happens that somebody’s really opposed to. If you really don’t want something to happen, you can dig your heels and say ‘that’s really going to affect me badly’. In the thirteen years I was there, that only happened once, and later on, I changed my mind and thought, actually, he was right.

Yeah, in the last few years we’ve used a modified consensus, where it actually takes three people to block some things. We’ve had 73 people in meetings, and with that number of people, having one person being able to prevent something happening was difficult. Actually, a lot of talking and negotiation and compromise happens before something gets to the meeting, so ideally we’re not in that situation.

Which team are you in?

I’m in three. We’re generally on more than one, although again, as we’ve got bigger we’ve had to streamline that a little bit, because we were getting teams that were getting to 15-20 people, which becomes quite unwieldy – making quite small operational decisions with that many people. So I’m part of the education and marketing team. I mostly have a role in communications with customers and the community and the wider world (hence this interview). And then I am also on the team that helps administer our 1 and 4% funds, which is the way we distribute some of our profits to local and international projects that share our aims and values. That’s a fascinating and really lovely thing to be part of. Also I’m in a new team looking at our governance and management structure, and particularly learning about sociocracy as a governance model, with the intention of implementing it throughout the business.

Yes, we met at the ‘Ways Forward’ co-op conference, and there was a session on sociocracy. It was very interesting. So, you’re using it now?

We are, yes. We started learning about it a over a year and a half ago, and did a short online course with Sociocracy for All (SoFA) in the States. We’re at the stage where most of our team meetings (or ‘circles’ in sociocracy-speak) are using sociocratic methods. So it’s been really really helpful. I mean a lot of it is just common sense, but in a package like that, and getting some support from SoFA and other people in implementing it has been great – so we’ve shrunk the size of some of those teams that were getting too big, by consent of the people involved. We’ve re-educated ourselves about what consent means and what it doesn’t mean and how to object and how you deal with that. Again, this is common sense – but having well-prepared agendas has made a big difference to meetings and management. There are elements of it that we haven’t felt were a good fit for us, but overall it has really enriched the way we operate.

Where can people go if they want to find out more about sociocracy?

Our starting point was SoFA, which is a small organisation based in the US. We did a short course online with them and and then had some ongoing support from them after that. But there are plenty of other places. I think different organisations interpret it or do it slightly differently.

Is there basic information on SoFA’s website?

Definitely – yeah, I think that would be a really good place to start.

So how did Unicorn start? How did you get the investment?

Well, it was a it was an uphill struggle at first. I think conventional lenders were incredibly sceptical about this proposed business that was going to be the size of a supermarket but wasn’t going to sell animal products and it wasn’t going to have a boss and there won’t be shareholders or investors having a say in it, and the founders were going to be working on the tills and cleaning – the banks weren’t interested. But we did get a lot of support from what is now Cooperative & Community Finance – a specialist co-op lender. They were very supportive; and a bit of loan stock was raised as well by the founder members – where people could buy a bond; but it didn’t give anyone a stake or a say in the business. It was just a no strings loan that would be paid back after five years.

Do vacancies come up very often?

Yeah – we recruit like any other business when when there’s a need for it. At the moment we’re not aiming to grow the membership, and staff turnover is fairly low. It’s different from just working in a supermarket. We do ask for a fair bit of commitment from people, and there are people who have been here 5-10 years and more. But we did we recruit a few months ago and a couple of people have left since then, so we’ll probably be recruiting again fairly soon.

What sort of things do you sell?

I realise we haven’t really talked about that. Obviously we’re aiming to compete with the supermarkets on range but our shelves might be quite an unfamiliar sight if you’re coming from having shopped at Asda or Tesco, because a lot of the brands are different – we’re selling products that are organic, lower packaging, fairly traded, produced by other social enterprises. There are lots of different criteria with our sourcing – but the bottom line is that they have to be affordable and taste good and be wholesome. It’s not a health food shop, but we’re also trying to avoid high levels of processed food, refined sugars and stuff like that. When you walk in the first thing that hits you is this huge fruit and veg display – that’s where a lot of our sales come from, and it’s probably one of the biggest draws I think, because it’s just beautiful. It’s super super fresh, hardly any packaging – so you can pick up stuff, you can smell it you can touch it, you can pick three tomatoes off the vine or break up a bunch of bananas. You don’t have to buy everything in assigned quantities. And it’s just really really tasty stuff. Then we have quite a lot of basic whole foods to cook with – grains, pulses, dried fruits and nuts, spices – all that kind of thing – and that’s about another 20% of our sales. Then it’s just general grocery, household goods, and we have a deli counter.

I wish there was a branch in Tooting.

Well download our start-your-own-grocery guide! So it’s a constant balancing act, between trying to source more responsibly and having a range that allows people to use this as an alternative to the supermarket. But we don’t stamp the whole shop with 100% ethically-assured goods. It would be lovely if we could but that would mean we had quite a small range and it would also price a lot of people out. It’s really important for us that we remain accessible to as many people as possible.

Do you do refills?

Only on a small range at the moment. We just started doing that last year and it’s growing. There’s been such a change in the landscape over the last couple of years of what people want and what’s becoming possible. There are so many options now and I think customers are really ready to embrace that way of shopping.

So because you’re not trying to rip suppliers off, and you want to sell quality produce, are your prices a little bit higher?

Like for like, we aim to be competitive with the supermarkets. It’s hard to compare a loaf of Happy Shopper bread to overnight-fermented, organic flour breads. But with basic products where comparison is easy, our prices are really competitive. We’re quite often offering organic versions at similar prices to the supermarkets’ non-organic versions so yeah, we are definitely competing. And it really depends on how people cook. It’s possible to come in and shop very savvily, if you enjoy cooking and making things from scratch. But if you want to buy loads of salads from the deli counters, it can start to get expensive, as it would anywhere. But we do price comparisons pretty regularly. We’re constantly checking our prices against the supermarkets and we do pass that information on to customers as well.

Do you think customers come to you because you’re a co-op or because of the good experience; and do people go out of their way to come to you or is it just local people?

No, we definitely have customers who travel a long way. People come regularly from places like Liverpool. Most of our customers are from within a few miles but we definitely have people who have found us and will really go out of their way to come to us – whether that’s because we’re a co-op or because of the products we’re offering, and the prices. I think it’s the whole package for a lot of people. I don’t think people would shop with us just because we’re a co-op if we weren’t getting the offer right; but equally I think even though understanding of what a worker co-op is might not be high, there’s definitely a sense that it is better somehow – even if people aren’t totally sure how it works. It’s something we really try and shout about as much as we can.

Do you try to explain to people how you operate?

Yeah we do – on the outside of our building in big letters it says Unicorn Grocery Workers’ Cooperative. We have lots of information on the website. And every year when we do the newsletter we always have stuff in there about co-ops – not just ourselves but the co-op movement more broadly. And when we do events we often invite other co-ops to come and speak. So yeah, it’s a sort of a slow drip feeding of information I guess, and I think it definitely is being absorbed.

What part of town are you in?

We’re in the south of Manchester in a suburb called Chorlton.

What kind of area is that?

It’s fairly middle-class now. It wasn’t so much when we started, but it’s an affluent area now – to the point where a lot of us wouldn’t be able to afford to buy in the area. But in terms of our customer base it’s surrounded by much less affluent areas. I’m at home at the moment in Moss Side, which is not affluent at all. There are lots of areas like this ringing Chorlton, and that’s actually where quite a lot of our customers come from, as well as just from Chorlton.

So I read that you’ve got a sister organisation which is a 20-acre land project that’s providing produce for the shop.

We bought that back in 2007 – it’s 21 acres of land about 15 miles away from the shop. A new growing co-op was formed to farm there and sell to us and to other local coops. But it hasn’t worked out – it didn’t prove viable for various reasons which are probably too complicated to go into now. There was a lot of disruption from some work that United Utilities did with water pipes going under the land that really disrupted the drainage. So that was a factor. It’s been an interesting lesson for us really – perhaps it’s best to stick to what we know – grocery.

What sort of ambitions do you have – are you going to stay the same size or do you want to help other groups to start?

We don’t really have ambitions to grow bigger than we are now. We’re limited by the site. It would be amazing to see other grocery co-ops start. Our toolkit has been used many many times. I don’t think anyone’s exactly replicated what we do, but they’ve taken elements of it. We went to visit a place called Hisbe in Brighton a few weeks ago, who have used a lot of our stuff to set up their supermarket. Yeah, I think just seeing more individual worker co-ops setting up along similar lines would be our ambition really – and we do try and support people where we can to do that.

Part 2 will be about Unicorn’s toolkit to help people set up a co-operative grocery store in their town.


Highlights

  1. The reason we set up was for principles of fair and sustainable trade, wholesome food, solidarity and cooperation – and I think those sorts of drivers are really interesting to people at the moment.
  2. It’s an incredibly empowering way to work – to really feel ownership of the business, and so much pride that comes with being an owner of a business that we feel is doing a pretty decent job.
  3. Like for like, we aim to be competitive with the supermarkets. It’s hard to compare a loaf of Happy Shopper bread to overnight-fermented, organic flour breads, but with basic products where comparison is easy, our prices are really competitive.