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Morning Coffee: Leaving people to leap into the unknown is leaving many to the big chains

It’s very fashionable to deride large coffee shop chains and vociferously proclaim your support for so-called “independent” coffee establishments – and yet the big chains endure and are growing. Even if we’re to believe the hype that independents are better, why do people flock to the chains? Perhaps with ubiquity comes familiarity – and knowing what you’re going to get for your hard earned cash is a powerful advantage for the chains. Powerful, but not wholly insurmountable for smaller businesses.

When it’s so early in the morning that sun hasn’t even tried to make an appearance, this is no time for me at least to be making fashion statements. A cup of coffee is essential to my working life on the road, so in an unfamiliar location do I take a chance on the independent, or go where I know what to expect? It’s far too early in the morning for coffee gambles, plus my laptop connects to the wifi automatically in the chain store.

Shock horror, the indy coffee aficionados amongst you are no doubt aghast. However, by the time the ‘barista’ has thrown a half a pint of steaming moo juice at it, the fineries of the particular bean and roasting technique must already be half lost?

Plus, the notion that independent naturally means better business practices doesn’t always hold true. Better pay and conditions for staff isn’t a given, nor better food hygiene management, nor the murky issue of paying as little tax as possible – even the little folk hire accountants to legally minimise their tax bill. And don’t get me started on the independents who open multiple branches….just like how the big chains got to be big chains.

I must also unfortunately report that in some parts of the Midlands there are tatty, low hygiene-scored greasy spoon cafes masquerading as independent coffee shops. Nothing against good old fashioned well run greasy spoons (“mmmm bacon sarnies”), just the ones who think calling themselves something they’re not is a great reason to crank up their prices.

Anyhow, weekends or holidays are okay for independent coffee shop experimentation – but 8am on a working day isn’t. Medium latte and some white toast please – and yes, I’d love a free holiday with all these Costa points please, thanks.

Familiarity is intoxicating to many a consumer. Our money is hard earned and most haven’t got it to waste – so spending it where we know by and large what we’re going to get is reassuring and compelling.

As an independent coffee shop, or any other kind of small business, you could just bemoan your larger competitors, or you could take some steps to actively tackle this inherent disadvantage.

Although you are obviously a very wonderful business, with great people doing fabulous things, as a small business, many people discovering you for the first time simply haven’t heard of you before. They’ve no idea how great you are – and actually, your word probably isn’t all that influential in convincing them that you’re great, since self-praise is never any recommendation.

This is perhaps even more of a problem for the internet-based small business – without staff to meet, or even a physical location to go and visit, can you even be trusted with a potential customer’s credit card details, let alone deliver the product or service they require? On the internet, it sadly pays for buyers to beware.

So what can you do? I believe that the key is to reassure potential customers and calm their “never heard of you” anxieties by providing as much insight about you as you can muster:

First Impressions. These really do count. Whether it be your shop front or website, if it leaves wannabe customers with even the slightest whiff of shabbiness or unprofessionalism, you can’t complain if they head to Costa, Tesco, Amazon or “insert own big business name here”.

Be clear and upfront about what you actually do. Sounds obvious, but whereas I already know what kinds of drinks and rather overly expensive snacks that Costa sells, I have no idea what “Rosie’s Deli Cafe” might sell (should such a place actually exist). They might sell my latte and toast, but they might insist on serving seaweed juice and quinoa pate, which just won’t do of a morning. I don’t really want to have to walk in and walk out again if that’s the case – a menu in the window is a bridge to the till!

Introduce customers to people who do know you. No, no, no, not your Aunty Pauline. The most influential form of advertising is word of mouth from people who have experienced your product or service before. This has been proven by scientists, well, market research people anyway. Encourage your regulars to review you publically if they’re happy – and speak to you in private if they’re not.

Show them around before they visit. Although maybe not everyone is glued to the internet, it is a great way to show people your wares, facilities and people, showing them that you’re as great as you already know you to be BEFORE they actually visit you. Oh look, the Rosie’s Deli Cafe website shows they’ve got a giant coffee machine, comfy seats and sizeable tables…and toast, they sell toast! When I visit their part of the world, I should definitely pop in.

If you otherwise just expect people to leap into the unknown, don’t complain or mock them if they end up in Starbucks instead.

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