There has been something of a “hoo-ha” of late in the otherwise ‘chilled-out’ South-West town of Totnes, that has even made the national papers, about the town’s opposition to the opening of a new branch of the UK’s ubiquitous Costa Coffee. The essential opposition point being, in a town that prides itself on being somewhat bohemian and alternative, the opening of a franchised coffee chain will fundamentally disrupt the flow of custom and affect the viability of many of the towns independent food and drink establishments, “changing the face of Totnes’ unique high street”. In a town with many other high street chains (albeit not purveying coffee) this argument and the associated anti-competitiveness and negativity is at risk, I believe, of the town missing a huge opportunity for further development of its small but distinctive local tourist and service economy. In any town or business, that is genuinely committed to good service and putting customers first, the introduction of mass-market players such as Costa should be welcomed as opposed to opposed as it gives the town’s independent retailers a chance to differentiate and develop their service offer to compete with Costa. Never has Marc Fonteijn / 31 Volts’ definition of Service Design been more prescient than when applied to Totnes, although it is also possible I’ve been watching too many programmes about Hayek of late.
When you have 2 coffee shops right next to each other, that each sell the exact same coffee at the exact same price; Service Design is what makes you walk into the one and not the other.
The price, is of course the key issue cited by the opposition to the complete neglect of a discussion about how businesses might become more innovative or (as they arguably already are) become more collaborative in the face for such competition. Apparently margins are already heavily stretched in most of the town’s existing businesses. But as Marc’s quote and Joe Heapy’s article in DMI Review last year highlight, if people feel they are getting better value, or better service, they will be prepared to pay more and further, businesses will do well to lead on this initiative rather than adopting a negative approach to these proposals. The public outcry has been on the one hand a hugely admirable demonstration of Totnes’ community spirit, rivalled perhaps only by a similar mass-mobilisation over the summer by parents and students at the local secondary school against the re-introduction of school uniforms (‘KEVICC Students are not Uniform‘) and it is great to live somewhere were you feel that these issues are at least debated. Indeed the coffee campaign has also exceeded the impassioned defence last year in the national press of a series of blue gnomes on one of the town’s roundabouts in a town also claimed recently to be ‘one of the least competitive in Britain‘.
However, as a designer interested in the design of services and the role that services can play in developing new businesses and growing existing ones, I am deeply uncomfortable living in a town that, by the efforts of its most vocal protagonists seems to be selectively opposing the whole concept of the service economy for some heavily romanticised and backwards looking view of itself. That said, I am conflicted for the fact that it is, as the No to Costa Campaign are arguing, exactly this ‘backwardness’ that is Totnes’ unique selling point in a broader tourist economy that pitches Totnes against the charms of Paignton or Newton Abbot in the surrounding area.
Having taken a bit of time to ponder the respective merits of the argument from both sides and conduct some ad-hoc design research which has totted up something in the region of 15-35 rival food/drink businesses within the centre of town (depending on how you count them). It is of course at a basic level, possible to empathise with why some of these already stretched businesses feel threatened by the arrival of Costa and how its arrival seems to ominously sound the alarm of an impending array of faceless high street brands and chains arriving in the town to exorcise it of its independent coffee shops and boho charm. This view is also easy to understand in a town of only 7,500 (albeit with a strong local and seasonal tourist trade), yet these figures and the charm and variety of many of the existing establishments (and indeed, Totnes as a town itself) also indicate a market for eateries and coffee shops that make it easy to see why, despite the local opposition, Costa want a piece of the action.
Having conversed with a number of people around town about the situation and absorbed the arguments, sometime vitriol and on the other hand heard about numerous examples of Costa’s previously callous corporate behaviour, it is interesting to observe the culture clash at play between one of the most recognisable of Britain’s high-street brands and that of the ‘values’ of the most vocal/threatened citizens of a town that has almost a similarly national reputation for being alterative and anti-competitive. What we are seeing here is the same tension that I perceive often plays out in the balance between the design of high quality product-oriented design and that of low-margin, high-volume service businesses. The difference being, that selling coffee is no longer a high-margin business.
What’s interesting in this debate is that the boundary of the service experience is being drawn in different places by the different stakeholders. With the No to Costa campaign saying that for the £2.20 you will pay for your cappuccino in Totnes, you are receiving an experience of drinking such a coffee in a highstreet that is free of any of the usual high street chains. Whilst Costa are arguing that people will know what they can expect of the Costa experience and therefore will spend more time (and money) interacting with other businesses and touchpoints in Totnes thereby adding value to both the Totnes economy, and, it has to be said Whitbread PLC, Costa’s parent company.
My perception in reflecting upon the above one line definition of service design as the difference between two coffee shops is that in this day and age there is room for both these two types of business in a thriving local economy and that a polarisation to either extreme is destined to provide bad experiential value for customers, either in terms of the cost and quality of their coffee, or in terms of their experience of the environment in which they are drinking it. The marketplace for coffee shops and eateries in Totnes is already heavily saturated (in the business sense!) – the introduction of Costa to this marketplace will just force those businesses already there, to seek new sources of differentiation and if handled well could see a massive growth of the Totnes brand, through efforts to add value to, and consolidate the ‘independent Totnes’ experience in the face of mass market competition. I would have hoped that rather than a massive campaign of negativity, that the opposition movement could have focussed on the potential for increased collaboration and innovation amongst local businesses that this development presents.
If, as the No To Costa Campaign argue, one of Totnes’ key differentiating features as a town and as a venue for coffee and food is in the town’s alternative and individual approach, then it is up to the independent businesses to take ownership of that and consolidate that brand, using it to differentiate against the greater reliability and efficiency of Costa’s high-volume operation and the economies of scale it can provide. Indeed, most people I’ve spoken to have said as something of an aside, that they value Costa (more generally) for the fact that you know exactly what you are going to get, and that like any decent service-oriented business or consumer brand that there is a consistency in their offer that is by no means guaranteed any time you set foot in an independent retailer.
The Food and Drink industry represents one of Britain’s biggest manufacturing industries and in a town with few other industries or sources of employment, building a reputation as eccentric and anti-competitive is only likely to alienate further sources of investment in the town and the surrounding area. On the other hand maybe the Totnesians are right to assert that shunning the ‘brand-led’ service economy is the only way, in this day and age, for local economies to create value or sources of differentiation? I don’t agree myself. But what do you think?