Nicola Miller considers the dilemma over choosing 'chain' or 'independent'
There’s a meme that does the rounds every few months and whilst the sentiment is, on the whole, an admirable one, like many of the best-known memes it over-simplifies the issue.
‘When you buy from a small business, you’re not helping a CEO buy a fifth holiday home,’ it says. ‘You’re helping a little girl get dance lessons, a little boy his team jersey, mums and dads [sic] put food on the table.’
Aside from the fact that employed parents are not solely confined to the independent, local sector, I always want to shout at the screen ‘at what point does a successful local business stop being small and therefore, less deserving of our support?’ Is it a second shop, a third, the beginning of franchising? Because even McDonald’s started off as a small, local business whose owners, the eponymous brothers Richard and Maurice, had stepchildren to send off to dancing lessons and football sessions. Most successful businesses start small.
And yet … Recently two new restaurants opened in Bury St Edmunds, both specialising in pancakes and waffles. Kaspars is a middle market chain, a sector we know is bearing the brunt of a tough trading climate: recent figures show that over 1,200 restaurant companies have become insolvent in 2018 and to date, the number of closures is up by a third across Great Britain. Kaspars has, at time of writing, 60 franchised restaurants across the country and the Cornhill branch in the town is its second in Suffolk. I walked past it during half term and they were having to turn people away.
Lottie’s Waffles and Coffee, on Angel Hill, is a small independent that is very much designed with the Instagram age in mind (very sensible of them) and well-placed to take advantage of both office breakfast and lunch crowd, and the thousands of visitors to the Abbey Gardens each year. People speak well of it. Disclaimer: I have not eaten at either yet.
Going back to that meme, it seems that we’re being told that eating in Lottie’s is the more civic-minded choice with it being the very definition of a small, local business. And I absolutely have no issue with that. But employees working for chains or big businesses also need to eat and buy football jerseys and dance lessons for their kids. And we know that monies earned by those who are lower paid are more likely to circulate in the economy while the big business owners salt theirs away and, in the case of some businesses, pay no or little tax. Lower paid people work across all sectors. So what to do? Withhold your custom from chains and you still risk the jobs of local workers.
For me, the indy versus chain argument isn’t clear-cut at all unless you look at the aspects of customer service that cannot be replicated online or in large, impersonal stores.
It’s not insignificant that the stores that are proliferating on the High Street are often ones which cannot provide the same service online. A plethora of tattoo shops, nail bars, fast food outlets, and small coffee shops might be a sign of an unhealthier town centre, according to a recent report by The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), demonstrating what they deem to be a clear link between deprived areas and unhealthy high streets, but they also provide a spontaneous service, and act as social hubs, especially if you have a lot of time, and not much money. (Have you ever been in a nail bar? All life can be observed and enjoyed if you are a people-watcher.) Pubs used to be like this, and in our town, we are lucky to have a few good ones which are welcoming places at all times of day and not just for drinkers of alcohol, but nationally they are on the decline too.
Patterns of living, working and consuming change and businesses are struggling to keep afoot of these, while managing a rise in business rates and ingredient costs, sector oversupply (why many middle-market chains are suffering) and exorbitant leases.
I don’t have any clear answers as to what we should do as customers when it comes to a straight choice as to where to take the kids on a Saturday. But I don’t think demonising chains and large businesses operating in smaller, rural towns is one of them.