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When small independents learn big companies' tricks

As of today the contents of my fridge have changed. Bye-bye big name labels and uniform vegetables. Hello real food delivered from local shops by Hubbub. If you haven’t come across them already, Hubbub is roughly what you get when you cross the good bits of buying local with the convenience of ordering from Ocado. It’s as good as it sounds.

It’s a fridge-lightbulb moment for me because the convenience (right down to Hubbub’s one-hour delivery slots) paired with the quality is so much better than what I’m used to. Imagine if all shopping was this good… Now of course it could be that I’m alone in thinking this, living in a deluded metropolitan bubble of farmers’ markets and heritage tomatoes. But could the scales be tipping from big unwieldy companies to smaller independent ones?

Judging by what’s happening at Tesco, it might well be. Until Christmas, Tesco’s growth seemed unstoppable. That was until their ‘Big Price Drop’ campaign flopped and they suffered their worst Christmas in decades. And last month they saw their market share fall to 29.7%, the lowest for almost seven years. As we’ve talked about before, big companies have got being big down to a tee. They know all about using their muscle to cut production and distribution costs. But it’s as if they’ve forgotten how to keep the service and quality up-to-scratch at the same time. Time will tell whether Tesco’s boss Philip Clarke can turn things around, but he’ll have a lot on his plate after they’ve spent so many years making ‘efficiency measures’ (MBA-speak for cutting costs).

Of course, service and quality are just the sort of things smaller indies do well. Compare getting a flat white from a coffee shop like Monmouth or Prufrock in London with Costa or Starbucks. Or the rise of craft beers versus big brewers, and sourdough or artisan bread versus the Chorleywood Bread Process (i.e. that floppy stuff that last ages but tastes crappy).

But the missing piece for all these plucky independent companies has always been about how to scale up what they do so they can compete with the big names. What Hubbub shows so brilliantly is that lots of small suppliers can reach more people when they work together (especially if they nick the clever delivery and logistics tricks from Ocado behind the scenes). Imagine what would happen if independent suppliers stole more tricks from big companies and clubbed together on tried-and-tested ways of distributing what they sell, and on their marketing, as well as delivery.

Meanwhile, it’s going to be much more difficult for big companies to learn from the small guys especially if they’re weighed down by brand slop and focus groups. They’re never going to start making good flat whites just by writing my name on a cup. Yes, Starbucks, Costa, Pret, Nero: I’m talking to you. To do that they’re going to have to learn how to be ‘inefficient’ all over again.

Tagged: Hubbub, Ocado, Tesco