What is it about Costa Coffee that strikes fear into the hearts of middle England? The Whitbread-owned chain was famously forced to pull out of plans to open a shop in the proudly off-the-wall Devon town of Totnes in 2012 after local opposition, and has since faced similar dissent elsewhere.
Yesterday the Birmingham Mail reported that residents of Moseley, a suburb of that city, are angry about plans to turn a former Barclays branch into a Costa cafe. Locals are planning to launch a petition and have called on their council to stand up to the chain.
‘Moseley is a unique place and as soon as it becomes overrun with stuff that you can get on every other high street you lose that,’ local pub owner Keith Marsden told the paper. ‘Costa Coffee is a billion dollar international operation – that isn't what Moseley should do. Moseley's strength is its uniqueness. If [this] happens, it will just be the same as everywhere else.’
It’s a familiar refrain that has greeted large businesses across the country. In June councillors in the Buckinghamshire village of Great Missenden were riled by plans to turn a Chinese takeaway into a Costa. And it’s not just a problem for coffee shops - supermarkets often have their plans thwarted by local activists and some confrontations have even turned violent, as 2011’s ‘Tesco riots’ in Bristol demonstrated.
It’s not hard to see why villagers sometimes oppose these kinds of encroaches onto their high streets. As chains have grown ever-bigger and their tentacles have penetrated further into rural communities, high streets do look increasingly indistinct. Costa is undeterred though.
'Our aim is not to dominate the local market,' its head of comms and CSR, Kerry Parkin, told MT. 'We operate alongside independent businesses across the country, targeting a different section of the market – bringing more customer choice to the High Street and offering people another place to meet and socialise.'
Perhaps the best way to determine whether there is really a lack of demand would be to leave things to the market. If locals do prefer their coffee to come from an independent barista then they will surely shun Costa and it will be forced to close.
The problem with that approach, though, is that Costa's scale means it should be able to survive on less takings, so it is disproportionately harder for independents to compete. Perhaps Moseley's best chance to retain its uniqueness is to take the Totnes approach - make as much noise as you can until Costa decides that opening a new branch simply isn't worth the bother.