Awe in the superstore
From the citadels of consumption to a Soho bar – pain and pleasure brought together…
‘You see,’ says Peter Cushman, ‘the coffee market in Britain is just about the most concentrated there is. There are two big manufacturers, Nestlé and Kraft, and two big retailers, Sainsbury and Tesco. Between them they sell well over half the coffee in this country.’
Gregorio and I are in Chipping Norton, about half-an-hour’s drive north-west of Oxford. It’s a medium-sized, prosperous country town. The superstore is run by the Oxford, Swindon and Gloucester branch of the Co-operative Retail Society. This may sound improbable, but the Co-op – though not in the same league for groceries as the ‘big two’ – is one of the largest retailers in Britain. In Chipping Norton it’s the smartest superstore in town, part of a brand-new shopping mall. Peter Cushman is a young public-relations manager who seems genuinely interested in our work. We walk down marble-floored aisles in hushed awe as if entering a cathedral, a citadel of consumption.
I ask Gregorio what he makes of it all. I am conjuring up lurid images in my mind that play with words like ‘gluttony’ or ‘greed’, and contrast them starkly with ‘scarcity’ or ‘sickness’. Strange to think, as Peter Cushman tells us, that the Co-op in Chipping Norton started 100 years ago when local people clubbed together to buy a railway-truck-load of coal.
To my surprise Gregorio is not particularly impressed by the store itself. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘it’s certainly got a lot of things in it’.
‘A lot of things,’ I add.
‘Yes, but there are stores like this in Lima.’
‘Not quite like this, surely. And not in Juliaca or Putina Punco.’
‘In Peru almost everything we buy is local. I mean, vegetables from Thailand? And bananas?’
‘And coffee,’ I remind him.
‘That’s the big difference. In the prices, I mean.’
‘Let me assure you,’ continues Peter Cushman, ‘it’s really competitive. Every-thing’s computerized. Every product we sell has to justify its shelf-space. Our margins – the difference between our buying and selling price – are about 15 per cent of the retail price for coffee. On other items we expect to make 25 per cent. Supermarket “own-brand” coffees have been taking market share off the big manufacturers by offering lower prices, though all coffee prices have gone up quite a bit since last year.’
This is one of the features of the retail price of coffee. Though it may go up when the international price rises – like last year – it rarely goes down when the price falls, as it is doing now. The rules of free-market competition, which suggest that at least someone should start selling cheaper, don’t seem to apply. This is one reason why the retail price of coffee is much more stable than the international price; and one way the manufacturers make their profits.
‘It’s a strange phenomenon,’ continues Peter Cushman. ‘Consumption of coffee stays much the same or increases slightly year by year. When prices go up, customers might “trade down” for a while to a cheaper brand, but they return to their old brand quite quickly. They never seem to drink less coffee.’
He tells us an odd tale. He has a link with a co-operative that produces Blue Mountain coffee in Jamaica – by far the rarest and most expensive in the world, selling for three or four times the normal price. As an experiment the Co-op offered a free, ‘blind’ tasting of Blue Mountain to some of its customers in the store. The overwhelming response was unfavourable: ‘It’s not like my usual brand,’ the customers said. Yet people in the coffee business talk of the coffee market in Britain, and particularly the ‘instant’ market that accounts for 80 per cent of the coffee sold, as ‘sophisticated’.
‘Coffee is like wine was 20 years ago, when people drank uniform blends,’ says Peter Cushman.
What the manufacturers aim to do by blending is to produce an absolutely predictable product with which customers, goaded by hugely expensive and subtle advertising campaigns, will identify. They become ‘loyal’. They don’t like change – and the manufacturers don’t want them to. The great joy of coffee, the subtlety of its flavours from a host of different soils and a multitude of small farmers around the world, all this is lost.
Well, perhaps not quite. Like wine- and beer-drinkers before them, coffee-drinkers are gradually becoming more sophisticated. The so-called ‘gourmet’ coffee market – with a price-tag to match – is booming, particularly in the US. Why, in Britain they’ve even begun to produce a contradiction in terms – ‘gourmet’ instant coffees. Something must be up.
So Gregorio and I take a sample of CECOVASA’s Sanor green coffee beans to Cardew & Co, a long-established ‘speciality’ coffee merchant in the Covered Market in the centre of Oxford. They’ve been selling Peruvian coffee here for 40 years. John Durkin, the manager, confesses that he stocks it because there are a couple of customers who keep coming back for more, despite its bad reputation. He’s pretty sceptical until we produce the Sanor sample. He likes the look of it, and he doesn’t often get the chance to talk to a farmer. He and Gregorio get down to business.
Mr Durkin will take a sample and have it tested. There will be problems. The market for it would have to be ‘developed’. The minimum practicable sale would be one ‘lot’, a 250-sack container, equivalent to one-and-a-half million cups of coffee. Of course, the quality might vary from year to year with the climate in the Valley... But, who knows? There’s another shop in Cambridge. The academics of Oxford and Cambridge are a pretty well-heeled, well-travelled, ‘gourmet’ bunch.
On one thing they’re both agreed, at least in principle. If a deal can be done, Mr Durkin will tell CECOVASA the retail price he intends to sell it for. They’d go through it together to see who got what. Try as I might, I can’t see this working out at $770 per sack for Mr Durkin and $150 for Gregorio.
Gregorio and I set off for London. We want to talk to someone about the vast amounts of money that are spent on advertising. Nestlé are reputed to spend upwards of $60 million every year on marketing Nescafé in Britain. The rest must keep pace if they are to stand a chance – advertising works.
Bruce McKinnon at Media Natura, an advertising and PR agency that works with Cafédirect, says: ‘We have to compete against commercial coffee brands with huge promotional budgets – so our limited budgets have to go as far as possible.’ This means focusing on the positive side of fair trade and finding those people who are most likely to respond. Media Natura calls these people ‘semi-ethicals’ – people who have an awareness but not a deep understanding of the issues. ‘Every coffee company out there will want to win back customers they have lost to fair trade,’ he says, ‘but no company has what we’ve got – the support of thousands of producers in Latin America and East Africa’.
All this is just a little bit too serious. It’s easy to forget just how proud the cafeteleros of the Tambopata Valley are of their coffee, how much they want their drinkers to enjoy it or how deep runs the irony of what they must suffer to give us our daily dose.
So we make for Soho, a place where the pleasures of life have always defeated their enemies, thanks in part to Italians who run bars that are said to sell the best coffee in London. We’re early for a reunion with Darran Rees, the photographer who came with us to Peru. We sit in a bar and drink strong cappuccinos, watching the customers come and go and a dispute over parking escalate into civil war.
We catch sight of Darran in the street, just as he sees us in the bar. It’s a strange moment, the first time we’ve met since Peru. We can’t quite seem to recognize each other. Darran has brought with him, in a pack he’s marked ‘Peruvian Best 95’, the beans they roasted especially for his photographs in Juliaca.
‘This bar is really my office. I sort of live here,’ says Darran.
And somehow, as he hurtles in and out of the bar to make calls on his mobile phone and arrange for us to see the wonderful images he has made, it all seems to fit. His photographs have brought the pain and the pleasure together at last.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995
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