I have a guilty secret I need to confess. It is not that I am among the one in five people who throws snails into a neighbour’s garden (although I do). Nor is it wanting to know more about why Harry and Cressida have split up (Dad, if you’re reading this, I am afraid this is also true). No, to readers of The Independent, this is much, much worse: I prefer corporate chains to independent shops.
I can see why this will be anathema to many. Greedy multinational giants don’t exactly have a great PR image. Besides some of them do not pay their full UK taxes and are seen as taking over our towns and cities, forcing boutique operations and local stores out of business, obliterating the unique identities of our high streets. And if it seems as though there’s a Costa Coffee on every corner, you’d be right: this week the firm revealed that it was opening three shops a week, or 150 this year. One of its rivals, Caffè Nero, will open 34 in 2014.
It seems we are a nation that pretends to hate the super-corporates. We embrace days like Small Business Saturday, and relish “foraging” for fruit and veg at our local farmers’ markets. Yet in reality, many people, including me, secretly love their polar opposite. There is a reason why these coffee chains are opening so many outlets and why their profits are up – because demand is there.
I began to see the light, or turn to the dark side, when I was on maternity leave. In those early weeks, with a baby who sleeps then feeds then sleeps again, there is not much else to do than sit in a cafe. On my local high street, which is packed full of charming cafes, trendy grocers and artisan cheesemongers, I found my pram was frowned upon if we lingered too long. Not the case in the Caffè Nero on the same high street, where the cheerful staff let me sit for more than an hour nursing one cappuccino or frappe latte while my daughter slept.
Then, about a year ago, I turned my back on our local independent bookshop. I used to go in there a lot, spending quite a few quid on the latest Julia Donaldson or a pop-up version of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. My daughter, then aged two-and-a-half, dared to pick up a book from one of the displays and in the process knocked over several others. As I apologised and tried to put them back, the shop owner snatched the book from me and grumpily said he would do it himself. We left in a hurry and haven’t been back since.
So far, I haven’t given up on buying meat from my local independent butcher, whose home-made sausages and organically-sourced beef and lamb attract a loyal army of customers. But if I don’t go for several weeks (because he doesn’t open on Sundays and Mondays, which are my days off) he demands to know where I’ve been buying my stewing steak, and I avert my eyes, feeling guilty about nipping to the 24-hour Sainsbury’s. He has a fantastic personal relationship with his customers, and is right to be concerned about my loyalty. But this grilling is testing my patience. This might sound shocking, but sometimes it is better to be greeted by an (often enthusiastic) employee of a corporate chain than having to account for your actions to a disgruntled shop owner.
When the Labour MP Andy Sawford criticised Waitrose earlier this year for putting independent shops out of business by offering its customers free coffee, this was a misguided attack on a company that operates one of the better corporate models, under the John Lewis partnership. In any case, often those “local” shops or restaurants are owned by larger businesses, but are masquerading as independent outlets. The corporates may be the epitome of capitalist greed to some, but they are forced to be transparent and accountable to shareholders, they have commitments to corporate social responsibility, and give employment to many young people. And surely, when so many shops are lying empty, it is better that the space is filled by a branch of a coffee chain than by a boarded-up facade?
Yes, I know that often those empty spaces are there because an independent shop has been forced out of business, but I would be a hypocrite if I said I didn’t wish the empty premises on a street corner near to where I live, derelict for several years, would be taken over by a Costa Coffee. As long as they pay their taxes, I am intensely relaxed, to paraphrase Peter Mandelson, about them keeping our economy and high streets alive. On this, I am guilty as charged.