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.

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

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.