During all this empire building, the struggling independent operators lamented the lack of support from government, media and us the general public as we upped sticks and flocked to our new cathedrals of cheap. A few stayed, remaining loyal despite the treehugger label, but not enough to arrest the demise of our greengrocer, butcher and baker once so prominent on the high street. The holy trinity of shopping days gone by.
Recently however the trade winds have changed tack across the retail landscape. As high streets dwindled to resmble back streets, we found ourselves forced to forage further afield. It was a novelty at first, but everyone piled on and now it's just a bunfight at the till. And with petrol prices skyrocketing, the trip out of town for the weekly shop has lost it's appeal as well as any potential savings on that 2-for-1 voucher.
One of many documentaries on how suppliers are treated by supermarkets.As consumers we read stories of how some of our favourite brands weren't paying their taxes fairly. Or were forcing farmers to dump veg that was the wrong shape. (One onion grower who frequented our old pub in Bedfordshire said he ploughed 3 tonnes back into the ground.) Or paying dairy farmers less than cost price for their milk. Every month there seemed to be another story of supermarket dominance until finally we got to Horsemeat, the daddy of all the scandals. Supermarkets had put so much effort into winning the race to the bottom, they finally scratched the barrel floor. Had we at last had a glimpse of the fat little man behind the curtain who convinced us he was Great and Powerful?
|Tom & Barbara brought us self-sufficiency|
|35 years later, it's back into fashion.|
Ever so stealthily, supermarkets (as well as fast food brands and PubCos) are moving into new markets in ways they haven't done before. Who could have imagined Tesco becoming a silent partner in an artisan coffee chain such as Harris + Hoole? Or as I mentioned in my previous posts here and here, buying out a standalone restaurant chain like Giraffe to install into larger stores? Or Sainsbury's going into the high street takeaway business? Or that king of consistency, McDonald's varying their decor and hamburger prices according to region?
These clandestine measures are more of a threat to independent operators than many realise because they are taking them on at their own game. The smaller operators could always differentiate themselves due mostly to some very niche targeted marketing, bags of energy, a fanatical focus on customer, staff and supplier relationships and of course by offering the one thing the big nationals couldn't replicate up to now, that personal touch.
But with the big conglomerates hiding behind smaller outfits which are tightly integrated into their local community, they will undoubtedly seduce people into believing the new brand cares about us more than the old brand did. I saw this very clearly demonstrated by the 1600-outlet Mitchells and Butlers group when they relaunched the Kings Arms pub in Cardington (our nearest competitor some years ago) in a re-branding exercise that termed the General Manager as your new "village pub landlady". A hugely successful move at the time and a sign of things to come.
Artisan traders can compete for sure, even if they don't have the safety net of astronomical hoards of cash to underpin their business model. But how are they going to tackle this newly evolving threat? I think this quote from Peter F. Drucker sums up that challenge very neatly:
“Innovation is the specific instrument of entrepreneurship. The act that endows resources with a new capacity to create wealth."As long as our independent operators continue to relentlessly innovate in meeting their customers' needs and exceeding their expectations, the multinationals will find it takes more than a cheque book and pen to re-write that Customer Service Promise which up to now hasn't really been worth the paper it's written on.