THE FRUSTRATIONS OF TRYING TO SHOP LOCAL
Giving your custom to small, independent, local businesses is something we should all be trying to do. Not only does the money you spend stay in the local economy instead of disappearing into the anonymous coffers of corporate giants, but in general these businesses will offer you a much better experience, because for the people serving you, it’s personal.
Nowhere is this more true than in food and drink, and I always try to spend my hard-earned cash with such businesses. Whether it’s a butcher, baker or restaurant, using local, independent firms means you can be much more certain about the provenance of what you are buying, the meal you are served is much more likely to have been lovingly and freshly made (rather than produced in some distant factory and reheated ion the premises), and I’d argue that small businesses tend to treat their staff better, too.
However, it’s not always easy to take this route. No business has a right to our custom, it has to be earned – and it pains me to say that too often it is the small, independent ones which don’t get this basic fact.
Here’s an example: on Sunday I visited the Paston Treasures exhibition at Norwich Castle (if you haven’t seen it yet, I urge you to do so before it closes at the end of next week). Afterwards, wandering through the city, the urge came upon my wife and me for a cup of tea and a slice of cake. At 3.15pm on a Sunday afternoon, this should be easy to find, I thought. Surely this must be peak afternoon tea time.
Sadly, I was wrong. We spent some time looking for an independent tea room or coffee shop to satisfy our urge for cake, but apart from the Assembly House which was fully booked (unsurprising given the popularity of its afternoon teas), the six locally-owned places we tried were all shut.
Giving up, we started to walk home, only to find the Caffe Nero on Unthank Road open for business. So we went in, and spent our money there. Now, I have nothing especially against Caffe Nero; it is the best of the large coffee chains, and although my slice of chocolate cake didn’t have that homemade feel, it was perfectly nice.
But instead of supporting a local entrepreneur, my cash went to a London-based company which has not paid any corporation tax at all since 2007, despite sales last year of £288 million.
I can’t help feeling our local businesses are missing a trick here. Caffe Nero was buzzing, and as the fully-booked Assembly House demonstrates, there is certainly an appetite for tea and cake on a Sunday afternoon. So why were the doors of so many of our independent coffee shops firmly closed?
This isn’t just an issue for coffee shops. Try buying meat at 4pm on a Saturday – not an unreasonable time to be shopping. All the local butchers will be closed, and your only choice is to go to the supermarket. My local artisan bakery does open into the afternoon, but never makes enough bread to stock the shelves beyond lunchtime. So once again you are forced into the clutches of the supermarkets.
In the 1960s, most people shopped at small local shops. Unfortunately, too many independent businesses indulge in wishful thinking that the country will somehow return to those distant days, instead of recognising that life has changed, and that if you want people’s custom, you have to change as well.
Chains and big supermarkets realised this years ago, offering extended opening hours, free wifi (still not available in some independent coffee shops) and so on. The big boys haven’t got to their dominant position through bullying tactics; they have got there by realising they need to adapt to the evolving lifestyles of their customers, and offering them what they want.
I don’t want to tar all small, local, independent businesses with the same brush. There are plenty who do things brilliantly. I’m sure there were some independent coffee shops open on Sunday afternoon, although I didn’t find any.
Running a small business is tough – I know, because I run one myself. But no business is entitled to succeed, you have to earn it. And more than anything that means ensuring that what you offer matches the needs and aspirations of your customers.
I make a considerable effort to support locally-owned businesses, especially in the food and drink sphere. But if they really want to compete with the big corporations and prosper, they need to adapt to our changing lifestyles and open their doors at times to suit their customers, not themselves.
This article was first published in the Norwich Evening News and the Eastern Daily Press.