Coffee shops: the new local battleground?

in Musings

Walk down some high streets and it feels like there are coffee shops everywhere you look. It’s felt a bit like that in the media recently too.

First up, Costa in Totnes. The first Transition Town, Totnes has achieved almost mythical status amongst those who champion independent shops and sustainable living. Yet even Totnes isn’t immune from the nationals: Costa recently applied for – and got – planning permission to open a shop there. It will be the first chain coffee shop in a town that has 42 independently owned outlets that serve coffee.

Secondly, Harris + Hoole, the newest coffee shop in Amersham. The website emphasises that it’s a family-run business with strong ethics and the photos I’ve seen of the inside show a funky, artisan space. It all looks good! Yet Tesco owns a 49% stake in the business.

If we delve a bit deeper into both of these stories, there are several interesting things to be found.

The media

It seems to me the media has been quite openly pro-independents and anti-nationals on this. The Independent said of Totnes, “The last bastion against the retail chains that dominate Britain’s high streets has fallen”, while the Guardian said, “The fact that Starbucks remains synonymous with the more rapacious aspects of modern business seems to have blinded people to what Costa is doing [opening another 350 shops].” All the reports focused on the anti-campaign; if there was a pro-campaign, we certainly didn’t hear about it.

In a similar vein, the Guardian said about Harris + Hoole, “Not content with dominating Britain with 2,975 supermarkets and convenience stores, Tesco is preparing to launch a chain of “artisan” coffee shops.”, while lots of other media outlets took a similar line, dropping any pretence of it being an independent and referring to it as Tesco opening a chain of coffee shops under the name Harris + Hoole.

Tesco’s market awareness

The Harris + Hoole shops will carry no Tesco branding and you have to search through the Harris + Hoole website for quite a while to find any mention of Tesco. To me, it’s a clear demonstration that Tesco understands that lots of people are falling out of love with national chains and want a smaller, more local experience. It’s equally clear that Tesco doesn’t want to let them go without a fight. No one is going to believe anything Tesco-branded is anything local and independent. So by investing “behind the scenes”, Tesco is doing the only thing it can do.

The voice on the ground

Perhaps the saddest thing I find in all of this is the voice on the ground. On my way to a meeting on 23 August, I listened to a piece on You and Yours on Harris + Hoole. Part of the piece was an interview with two friends visiting the shop for the first time. When asked how they felt about Tesco owning a 49% share, they both expressed irritation and disappointment, but neither said it would stop them going there again.

On the Totnes FM website, there was a poll asking visitors if there should be a boycott of Costa when it opened. When I last visited the site, 54% said yes, 45% said no and 1% didn’t know. Hardly the clear result you’d expect from a Transition Town, is it?

It all simply screams apathy, a resigned acceptance of the ubiquitousness of the national chain and a powerlessness to stop them expanding or to avoid using them.

It would be naive of me to suggest that anyone would or should choose to go to an independent that served inferior coffee over a chain that served superior coffee. But what if the independent had the same – or better – quality coffee as the chain? Where would people choose then? Does the perceived reliability of the national brand count for more than giving support to the local economy for most people?

And, most importantly, what do we have to do to make people think that choosing local is better than choosing national?

For me, the most important thing for local shops is to make sure they really are offering the consumer something equal or better than the national equivalent. After that, you need to brand carefully and give yourself a clear identity in your local area. And in all the marketing you do, focus on what makes you different. If you’re cheaper, say it; if you’re quicker, say it; if you’re better quality, say it; if you do home deliveries, say it; if you’re open longer, say it; if you’re friendlier, say it. You get the picture: most people won’t buy from you because you’re an independent, they’ll buy from you because they think you’re better at what they care about whether that’s price, quality or service.

Let’s not fall into the apathy trap of thinking that nationals are both bigger and better. Let’s remember they’re only bigger. I’m not advocating a formal boycott of national shops. I’m simply saying let’s remind people that they’re not the only option and they’re certainly not always the best option!

Share this article

If you liked this, subscribe to my newsletter and get my latest blogs delivered to your inbox once a month.