You can’t deny the success of their scale. Costa Coffee is the most visited coffee shop in the UK, with Starbucks just behind and Caffè Nero in third place, according to a recent Mintel report. And yet, while the UK coffee shop market grew to an estimated £1.2 billion in 2010, it has not been plain sailing for the big chains in recent times.
Accusations of high street homogenisation and of demanding inflated prices for inferior coffee, as well as developments in consumer taste, have required brand realignments and product diversification. Meanwhile, much as sustained interest in pubs may now be increasingly driven not by the major breweries but independents and small chains, so the reputation of independent coffee shops continues to rise.
The big brand players, of course, still expand and tweak. Targeting of specific demographics, for example, is now commonplace: Costa’s metropolitan stores focus on speed of service to lure time-pressed city workers, while Coffee Republic’s Conran-designed shops are aimed at attracting more women. Distribution has extended too, with Coffee Republic’s “To Go” concept rolling out to Shell garage forecourts and Barracuda-managed pubs selling Costa coffee across its 217-strong estate. At the same time a recent Starbucks brand re-jig saw the company name - and the word “coffee” - dropped from its logo.
But in an increasingly competitive marketplace, it’s not simply a two-way battle between the high-street chains and the indies. Non-specialists are also gaining market share. McDonald’s hot drink offer now includes espressos, Pret A Manger has expanded its coffee range and supermarkets offer significant competition.
And the offer of a good coffee is cropping up in-store in unexpected corners of clothing shops and furniture stores. And not just them: Look Mum No Hands! in London’s East End combines bike with coffee shop. Individuality seems to count as much as a good crema.
“With independents and small chains there is the winning ability to ‘do your own thing’ in terms of the offer and the marketing,” says Jali Wahlsten, founder of London’s Nordic Bakery, a Scandinavian-style food and café outlet with two sites. “Independents don’t have to follow the guidelines made by a central marketing department, so, for example, they don’t have to play Christmas music in the shops from the beginning of November. They can choose to be individual. That suits customers who are very savvy in terms of what they are looking for and what is available out there now.”
For Nordic Bakery that means cutting back on what the business perceives as annoyances found in the big coffee chains - not just the music, but tills surrounded by small, expensive extras, loyalty card schemes and obfuscating pricing. A coffee here is £2, not £1.99. Similarly, the success of Monmouth coffee, which roasts coffee from single farms, estates and co-operatives, and has shops in Borough, Bermondsey and Covent Garden, is now considered by other independents as a major player.
Independents are a far more ethical choice for consumers because they tend to source local products
Small wonder that the high-quality niche independent coffee shops continue to exert influence on the branded chains. The past few years have seen a so-called third wave of coffee culture with a strong antipodean influence and the flat white becoming a menu staple alongside the cappuccinos, lattes and mochas, (still chosen by half of all customers, according to Mintel).
Indeed, arguably the independents have shaped this wave: the flat white was brought to prominence in London by independent coffee shops such as Flat White in Soho, New Zealand roaster Allpress Espresso in Shoreditch and Taylor St Baristas, a small Australian-founded chain. Playing catch-up, flat white coffee was introduced at Costa and Pret A Manger, but not before consumer interest in third-wave indies was piqued.
Nor is the rising independent scene a product purely of the capital now. “We have a lot of respect for Monmouth,” says Rick Curtis of Ground, a single shop independent in Brighton. “They are a biggie on the independent scene. But there are now many other smaller but outstanding and non-London coffee houses that deserve attention.”
Open since 2009, Ground has, like Nordic Bakery, built a strong following on a more personalised approach, notably an ethical business practice. It uses Union Hand-Roasted beans directly traded from the farmers themselves - circumventing coffee brokers and giving farmers a better deal.
“Independents are a far more ethical choice for consumers because they tend to source local products or smaller roasteries that have more intimate relationships with the growers,” argues Mr Curtis. “But that’s not all. The superior quality of the cup [of coffee] simply can’t be matched by the big chains. Independents are also excellent at creating a community vibe. Design too is also becoming a big part of the independent scene and there are a growing number of coffee houses that are quite beautiful spaces to be in.”
The drinking environment may prove more important than it at first seems; Mintel reports that coffee shop users overall tend to be women, who are also the most likely to sit in. Sit-in, in fact, is growing at a faster rate than take-away. This has proven one motivation for many of the UK’s traditional tea rooms and cafés to also update their look and offer.
At the Tudor Tea Rooms, in the small Essex town of Wivenhoe, a flat white, previously just a metropolitan coffee trend, can now be purchased, just as, around the corner at the centuries-old Rose and Crown pub, a Costa sign has appeared. Again, key to the tea rooms’ coffee proposition is personal service. If a customer’s favourite style of coffee isn’t listed, ask and they’ll make it. It’s an attitude common to many independents and an area where the large chains struggle to compete.
For the moment at least. Speedy to catch-up - the rest of the UK is now au fait with the flat white - independents need to work hard to stay ahead. Both Monmouth and Taylor St Baristas, for example, now offer single-origin filter coffee, picking up on recent Stateside developments in coffee drinking that allow aficionados to explore different roasts and coffees from around the world.
Yet Starbucks has been quick to notice, with selected stores in the UK now offering seasonal and regional variations too. If the US influence is to continue, then the next development will be to see an increase in coffee shops selling beans for home roasting - turning the aficionados into connoisseurs.
Indeed, while the future for independent shops might look bright, Mr Curtis warns against complacency and a return to the bad old days of uninspired brews that arguably allowed the branded chains and their once radical emphasis on quality so much room to grow in the first place.
“Bear in mind that there are still many truly awful independents, too,” he says. “It’s important to recognise the difference between the new high-quality coffee houses that are coming up as opposed to the uninspired lot that are littered about. It seems that everyone wants to get into the coffee business these days. But very few know how, or care to know how, to do it properly.”