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 up to 49 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.

David Cameron addresses pupils at an assembly during a visit to Corby Technical School on September 2, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Can Cameron maintain his refugee stance as he comes under attack from all sides?

Tory MPs, the Sun, Labour and a growing section of the public are calling on the PM to end his refusal to take "more and more". 

The disparity between the traumatic images of drowned Syrian children and David Cameron's compassionless response ("I don't think there is an answer that can be achieved simply by taking more and more refugees") has triggered a political backlash. A petition calling for greater action (the UK has to date accepted just 216 refugees) has passed the 100,000 threshold required for the government to consider a debate after tens of thousands signed this morning. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has tweeted: "This is not an immigration issue, it's a humanitarian one, and the human response must be to help. If we don't, what does that make us?" Tory MPs such as Nicola Blackwood, David Burrowes, Jeremy Lefroy and Johnny Mercer have similarly appealed to Cameron to reverse his stance.

Today's Sun declares that the UK has "a proud record of taking in desperate people and we should not flinch from it now if it is beyond doubt that they have fled for their lives." Meanwhile, the Washington Post has published a derisive piece headlined "Britain takes in so few refugees from Syria they would fit on a subway train". Labour has called on Cameron to convene a meeting of Cobra to discuss the crisis and to request an emergency EU summit. Yvette Cooper, who led the way with a speech on Monday outlining how the UK could accept 10,000 refugees, is organising a meeting of councils, charities and faith groups to discuss Britain's response. Public opinion, which can turn remarkably quickly in response to harrowing images, is likely to have grown more sympathetic to the Syrians' plight. Indeed, a survey in March found that those who supported accepting refugees fleeing persecution outnumbered opponents by 47-24 per cent. 

The political question is whether this cumulative pressure will force Cameron to change his stance. He may not agree to match Cooper's demand of 10,000 (though Germany is poised to accept 800,000) but an increasing number at Westminster believe that he cannot remain impassive. Surely Cameron, who will not stand for election again, will not want this stain on his premiership? The UK's obstinacy is further antagonising Angela Merkel on whom his hopes of a successful EU renegotiation rest. If nothing else, Cameron should remember one of the laws of politics: the earlier a climbdown, the less painful it is. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.