13 Ways Independent Coffee Shops can Beat the Coffee Chains

How do I compete with the chains?

We get asked this a lot, particularly at a time when an existing independent coffee bar finds itself with a new big branded neighbour. We have had a lot of experience of this over the last 10 years and in fact we compete in our own business successfully against a much larger national chain.


But what are the key elements to effectively attract customers in the face of the big brands?


  1. Brand Comfort

The biggest advantage the chains have over you is that the customer knows what they are going to get when they walk through their doors. The chances of them recognising the brand or even having already visited this chain in another town are high. It’s the same reason we drink coke when we are in a foreign country, it’s the safe option.

To combat this feeling of safety you should look at your business from across the road. Does it look inviting, are there visual clues for the customers so they understand what to expect? Is your signage clear and does it say what you do and stand for? For example, do you provide take away? It’s a given that the chains serve take away coffee but it’s not always so obvious in independents. Are your windows clean and your frontage litter free and are your food hygiene standards clearly visible? All these things will either encourage or deter guests from stepping over your threshold.


  1. Consistency

Lack of consistency is a key reason you lose your customers. Your independence is a strength but the freedom that you give your team could be your downfall.

The chains expend a lot of corporate energy in ensuring that the brand standards are adhered to throughout their estate of shops. Strict rules are in place, much training is given and audits are happening every day to ensure that all drinks are made the same way and so taste the same everywhere they operate.

In some independents the lower levels of training, the cult of personality, where each barista has their own style of drink and the turnover of staff. all work together to reduce the chances of a guest getting the same drink made in the same way. This lack of consistency will drive customers away.

The successful independents work really hard to ensure that their drinks are always consistent and that their guests can feel comfortable that the flat white they order on Tuesday will be the same as the one they drank on Monday.


  1. Service

This should be an easy win against the chains as your guests already believe the big chains are faceless so you are halfway there. What little things can you do to that will make you stand out against your competition. It’s not just about the smile and the hello, it’s about the dog bowl outside, the latte art, the help for young families and the elderly, together with the posh hand soap in the toilet that will make your customers feel more cared for than when they visit the brands.


  1. Freshness

By baking cakes & pastries and making your sandwiches fresh every day you have an unbeatable edge of freshness. With the chains sourcing their food centrally, it is often a few days old before it even gets to them. Your guests will notice the difference and it’s always good to remind them with either a sticker on your products and other signage proclaiming the unbeatable level of freshness your products have!


  1. Uniqueness

Your business is unique, it does not have a cookie cutter design like the chains. You are unique and full of interesting features that the chains are not able to replicate. Make your business more quirky and memorable, it doesn’t take a lot but it will enhance your Independence and give people a reason to love your business even more.


  1. Be local

Your business is a vibrant part of your local community. You can get involved with so many local groups and causes and support other local businesses that the chains just won’t get a look in. When they are asked to support a local event/cause/group the answer is ‘ask head office’, your answer is yes! Give discounts to local businesses and clubs, support them with allowing them to advertise in your bar. Follow local businesses and clubs on twitter and retweet their posts to your followers.


  1. Tell your story

Your guests love stories and they love to tell your story to others, so give your customers plenty of information about what you and your business stand for and what you are doing at the moment that makes you interesting. Who make your cakes? What’s inspired you? When did you open? How do you train your teams? What awards have you won? What local charities do you support? What local suppliers do you use? All these things are interesting and make you even more unique and local.


  1. Innovate & Experiment

The chains Achilles heel is their size and inability to do anything quickly. You can react to the news, to the weather, to the latest trends and try out new recipes in minutes where the big boys would take months, so what are you waiting for?

Coffee shop customers get bored quickly with the same things available every day, so you can keep your business fresh and relevant before the chains even get to the first committee meeting!


  1. Social Media

Use social media to its full advantage, use it to tell your story, keep at the front of your customers minds and start communicating with them. The chains can’t control their social media presence locally and so it tends to be full of corporate messages and complaints from their guests. Your social media accounts should be full of what’s happening in your area, street or outside your front door.

Build a community online that supports you offline! Make sure that you own your own social media pages for your business and that there is not an automatically generated one!

Facebook advertising is your friend, target local customers that fit your demographic, don’t just use the boost button and make sure that you have a facebook pixel on your website to be able to advertise directly to your website visitors.

Your business is full of “Instagrammable’ images that are waiting to be shared with the world, Pinterest is just crying out for your latte art or cakes, and Twitter is waiting to hear about the event going on outside your door.


  1. Build a Supporter Club of Super-Fans

Having a great following on social media is not enough. To be in control you need your guests details. Get their email addresses, set up a mailing list in Mailchimp or similar and tell your most loyal customer what you are doing that makes you interesting. Reward them with offers, news, and updates, and they will become super-fans. These super-fans will be your best advertising, recommending others to visit you and generally singing your praises to anyone in earshot.


  1. Testimonials

Ask your supporters and fans to give you a quote that you can use for your website or marketing, there is nothing better than someone else saying how good you are! Get some on video using a mobile phone to turbocharge the testimonial!


  1. Trip Advisor

Embrace it and don’t ignore it. It won’t go away and will only get worse if you pretend it’s not there. More and more people use it to choose where to visit and it will affect your ability to attract new customers. Make sure you have claimed your listing, you reply to every single review, good or bad and ensure that the details and description of your business are correct. The chains struggle to manage this at a local level and this is another way your business can stand out online and on your prospective customers smartphones!


  1. Local Newspapers & Radio

Make a friend of your local newspaper and radio station. They are always on the lookout for good local stories, so you can genuinely help them by providing them with content and get free PR in the meantime. Local media aren’t really interested in the chains either unless it’s a bad news story!


This is not a comprehensive list of what an Independent Coffee Shop can do to beat the chains, if you have any more examples of other tactics that have worked then please comment below.


About the Authors

Andrew & Claire Bowen are the authors of 'The Daily Grind - how to open a coffee shop that makes money' Available on Amazon, and Founders of Cafe Success cafesuccesshub.com - the ultimate resource site for coffee shop, cafe and tea room owners worldwide.

To buy The Daily Grind on Amazon Click Here