Tuesday, 10 July 2012

A new way of thinking about business

When I posted about Broadway Market the other day – it's past and, to a lessor degree, it's present, there were plenty of things I didn't deal with.

One of the thing's that's fascinating about visiting different countries and different cities is learning about different food cultures.

But part of that is also a matter of how small businesses deal with the challenges of a changing world.

The last post touched on the core reasons why Broadway Market had sunk so low. But with a whole raft of new businesses thriving, are there any lessons to be learned?

Well, I think that there are.

We have a tendency to look at supermarkets and to see their almost 24/7 approach and think that nothing can compete, on that level alone.

And let's face it, the attack of the rabid supermarkets isn't going to end anytime soon.

Indeed, last year, Tesco reported slightly reduced profits in one quarter (the second, if memory serves me correctly). They still made millions, but profits were down.

But that wasn't why the City got antsy. The City was upset because they hadn't shown enough growth.

Now there are huge questions over growth – it's simply not infinitely sustainable, for starters. And that's without remarking on the steady creep creep of a Tesco (or comparable) on every other street.

But it's really not the case that there is no hope and no point fighting it.

Let's take France. Yes, yes – I know that you all know that I love France for a variety of reasons, and not least its approach to food.

But modern French businesses do face challenges too – and many of them are exactly the same as small, independent businesses face over here.

One of the biggest supermarket chains in the world (third biggest, if my memory is still doing okay) is French – Carrefor.

It's not the only supermarket chain in the country, but it is big. And it has expanded, and is expanding, globally – just like Wal-Mart and Tesco.

Yet supermarkets do not dominate French grocery retail in the same way that the big four do over here.

And one of the reasons for that is that the small independents have adapted.

It's really no use pretending anymore – whether you like it or not – that every household has one person going out to work and another staying at home, except when nipping up the road to do the shopping.

One thing that you see in France (and France is far from unique in this) is that shops have adapted to changing social patterns of work.

So if I sit outside a cafe on Rue Clare in Paris of an evening, I will see people making their way home from work and nipping into the butchers and the bakers and the deli and the greengrocer, in order to pick up something fresh for that evening.

Many British shops have been sluggish in this, apart from the extraordinary efforts of mostly migrant families running the modern versions of the old corner shops 24/7. Or almost.

But people shouldn't be expected to work all the hours god sends just to make a living. And local businesses don't have to either.

In Collioure, for instance, there are not many local food shops that open at 9am and close at 5pm. They might open later – and then they'll have a long (up to three hours) 'lunch' and reopen until 7 or 8pm, to catch that late trade.

Indeed, it's a gospel that is seeing benefits over here.

On Broadway Market, two of the newest businesses have taken such an approach on board. It might not be surprising that Stephane, who runs the French deli, La Bouche, organises (and staffs) his business in such a fashion, but the even newer fish shop, Fin and Founder is doing something similar.

The latter is a very new sort of British business. It's far from cheap. But it offers good quality, sustainable fish – and it also provides a serious service in terms of preparing your fish for you (if you want).

There are lessons too in terms of available produce. John, the greengrocer who has a barrow on the market, is probably beyond redemption, but it is worth stocking a variety of products when, for instance, they're in season.

I have had discussions with John over many years about broad beans – why not? – or English asparagus, for that matter. In season.

And that's without even mentioning his bloody martyred insistence on continuing to serve produce in imperial measurements.

Look: I'm not in the first flush of youth. When I was first taught measurements at school, it was imperial measurements. Followed, a week or so later, by metric.

But it's two thousand and fucking twelve now, and if I have found that, since starting to learn to cook, the only weights that I can really get my head around are metric, then I suspect I'm far from alone.

John, though, will be retiring soon. Whether anyone takes over his barrow, I have no idea. I'd like to think they would – and perhaps even reinvigorate the old barrow form of London trade with a new approach or two.

But the point of all this is that there are things that new, small and independent businesses can do, without straining themselves impossibly, that will help to gain the trade that they need, in the face of the supermarket juggernaut.

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