Tesco's "indie" coffee shop should worry defenders of capitalism

Free markets rely on informed choices, and those seem lacking in the case of Harris + Hoole.

There's been a lot of chatter about an article in today's Guardian (by which, I guess, I mean that I've been talking about it a lot). Headlined "Customers criticise 'indie' image of the coffee shops part-owned by Tesco", it details the reaction of customers in North London to their discovery that Harris + Hoole, an independent-looking coffee shop, is actually part of a ten-branch chain, of which 59 per cent is owned by Tesco.

Rupert Neate writes:

"I thought: 'That's very brave, opening up next to Starbucks,'" Bridget Chappell, a full-time mum, said of Harris + Hoole, a new coffee shop in north London next door to a branch of the US behemoth and four doors down from a Costa Coffee.

"I like to try independent shops, and it was really very nice with great coffee," she said. "But when I got home, I looked it up and discovered it was a chain."

The people who are shocked to learn that they've just had a pleasant cup of coffee at a shop part-owned by Tesco have come in for a fair amount of criticism. After all, they clearly don't care about anything that matters, otherwise they'd have been unhappy before they learned the technical fact of the shop's ownership.

More to the point, this is supposed to be what capitalism's about, right? Tesco has identified a desire that customers have, and joined forces with a coffee chain to provide that desire. As the lead barista tells Neate:

We try to be independent. We want to be independent. We want to have that feel.

The question which no-one seems to have addressed is what it is that the customers actually desire. If what they want is an independent-feeling café, with mismatched furniture, blackboards for the menus and stacks of hand-made sandwiches, then Tesco can fulfil that need. But if what they desire is an actual independent café, then Tesco can't profit from that desire without the customer being mislead.

That's not to say that Harris + Hoole is necessarily to blame for those customers' mistake. As its chief executive tells the Guardian when asked about Tesco's stake:

If you Google it, you'll find it. Go to our webpage – it's not hidden. Putting it any more prominently would not reflect who we are as a business.

We can't know conclusively whether customers do desire independence or an independent feel, but my hunch is the former. That's certainly what the three interviewed in the Guardian piece claim, anyway.

The problem is, if you desire independent coffee, that's a relatively tricky desire to satisfy conclusively. You could research the corporate ownership of every coffee shop you go in to, but that would get difficult the first time you needed coffee in a strange city with no internet access. As a result, people have developed proxies to work out whether somewhere is part of a chain or not. Blackboards, mismatched furniture, hand-cut food: these things don't normally scale to a big chain, and so are usually a good indicator that somewhere has at most a couple of branches.

It may not seem that important, but it's pretty key to the claims free markets have for being an efficient way to run things that, when people think they are handing over money for a specific reason, they are in fact doing so. That's why we ban calling something organic when it's not, or slapping a union flag on Danish bacon. That even stretches to things which, in your opinion, may not be a choice that matters. Homoepathy is bunk, but it still would be bad for capitalism if anyone could put "approved by 90 per cent of homeopaths" on their sugar pills without that actually being the case.

But unfortunately for these specific customers, Harris + Hoole didn't mislead them. Purposefully or not, making yourself look like an indie coffee shop is not the same thing as telling customers you are an indie coffee shop.

If ethical consumerism is your bag, you're going to have to start putting a lot more effort into making sure you're doing it right, because these things are only going to get more common.

Baristas take part in a latte art competition. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.