Competing During Tough Trading Times
Why independents should be proud to be different!
O’Brien’s, Subway, Prêt A Manger, Eat, Costa, Starbucks, Café Nero… not to mention the supermarkets, pubs, department stores and fast food restaurants all already in on the act, or the depressing current economic climate! The unavoidable truth is that there are many big businesses out there, all securing their foothold on the high street, spending millions on product development, and even more on marketing it like crazy to the hungry public. Added to that, whilst fast food is not being hit hard just yet, there’s certainly less money in customers pockets
This must signal the end for the independent café right? Wrong!
Many of those big firms existed in the town my partner and I chose to establish our own independent café in, early in 2006. So, I know from experience that competition for customer interest, patronage and ultimately cash, is fiercer than ever before. In addition, we’re busy running our café day in day out, so are seeing first hand the impact the (now official) recession is having on customer spending. Because of this I remain confident, and I know its possible to take on the big brands, and with a bit of ingenuity give them a run for their money.
Of course you need to be passionate about food that goes without saying. But that alone will not make you stand out. To truly compete you need to have a savvy business head on your shoulders, be able to spot an opportunity, be a keen marketer, an excellent people manager and a relentless perfectionist. In short, you need to do everything the big boys do, but on a smaller scale, and a much smaller budget.
So how do you start beefing up, how do you begin to get your business in shape for this competition? In my view you start by doing the most important thing, and that’s to take a long hard look at your business, and decide what makes it special. Because once you know your own strengths, you can play to them, and this is what will give you the edge.
So what are your strengths? Well, there’re not going to be the same for every single independent café, but there are three areas where we should all excel.
The first is customer service, or as we like to call it, getting personal. We learnt very early on, and we’re certain you did too; that customers want to get to know us. They like the fact that the owner serves them coffee, they love that we remember what sandwich bread they prefer, and, thanks to programmes like ‘Dragon’s Den’, they can’t get enough of chatting about how business is going.
The exciting thing is that it’s not just you who can provide this extra special level of service. By firstly training, and then motivating and rewarding staff, they too will shine in the eyes of the customer. And it’s once you reach the point of an entire team of staff all trained to go that extra mile that you’ll find yourself with an outstanding reputation for customer service, and very loyal customers indeed.
The first thing to consider is writing some simple training handouts. In our case we included straightforward guidelines as to how customers should be greeted, treated and sold to. We also included mini scripts outlining the kind of language we wanted staff to use.
Following this you could consider holding informal training sessions, where you demonstrate to your staff how you want them to serve customers. We included some fun role play; getting our trainees to practice until we are 100% happy that they will provide the level of service we want for customers in our café.
Finally, introduce some incentives, after all you are asking your staff to give 110% every day. For us the right approach is to run a ‘spot bonus’ scheme. Our staff receive spot bonuses when they excel. We find this works far better than a traditional ‘Xmas bonus’, which does not really incentivise staff, as they are not singled out for their hard work. Alternatively you could consider offering your staff the promise of a staff outing, or introducing an award scheme.
The second area where independent cafes should excel is in the quality of their food.
For most of the big brand names infiltrating the high street the focus is on coffee, with a selection of pre-packed foods alongside. Such firms will never be able to offer anywhere near the level of fresh, handmade food, that an independent café has the potential to offer.
When we opened our café we knew therefore that it was vital that we make our offering about our food. Of course we serve a wide selection of coffees and teas, and customers compliment us on our delicious lattes and cappuccinos etc. But we do not want to compete with Costa. We want to stand apart from Costa. We want our customers to think of us first and foremost as a place that offers great food. This way the independent wins the competition hands down, every time. This is because the sandwiches, paninis, ciabattas we make are fresh everytime, not pre-packed in a factory. This is what independent customers come to us for, and as long as we keep our standards high, and our menus interesting, they will continue to do so.
The third, and final area, where all independents should excel, is in their very independence!
Customers don’t always want to find the same food, service, uniform, chairs, music, wherever they go, that would be boring! What they want is to have an attractive alternative, somewhere they can relate to, that interests them, that they trust in. Simply being independent is not enough. You need to communicate with your customers, tell them what your Café is about, what makes you different, why they should give you a try.
The starting place for this is your brand, and this is because your brand is the personality of your business.
In our experience the clearer you can be, the better. Take our Café for example. We’re all about fresh, healthier food. So, we worked with a professional designer before we opened to make sure that our shop signs, menus, fascias etc all communicated the right message about our café. And the result? Within the first few weeks we were already being referred to by people of the town as ‘the fresh place’ or ‘that healthier café’. Perfect! That’s exactly what we wanted, customers know what to expect, and that entices them in.
Do not underestimate the importance of sending the right messages out to your customers, and potential customers. Get it right and you’ll be a ‘brand’ name in your own town, just as recognised as Costa, Starbucks etc. Get it wrong and you’ll be overlooked, and miss out on the chance to wow new customers coming in through your door.
I believe that regardless of a slow economy there is room on the high street for independents and branded cafes to happily sit side by side. I also believe that as small business owners we still have masses of opportunity to not only compete, but to grow.
Jill Willis co-owner of Taste (UK) Ltd, and author of ‘Start and Run a Sandwich and Coffee Shop’ published by How To Books. Get in touch with her via her website www.sutherlandcomms.co.uk