Friday, 1 March 2013

Café Alf Resco and The Kitchen Shop in Dartmouth

Clare's dad and his little dog Watson have been visiting this week, which meant visits to scenic local towns with their independent shops. On Tuesday it was Brixham and on Wednesday Dittisham, but it was yesterday's trip to Dartmouth that showed the contrast between the best and worst of independent businesses.

The first task for the day was to find somewhere for breakfast. Café Alf Resco caught our eyes, initially because of its architecture: it's a tall, thin building, with wooden shutters, exposed stone, and a cute balcony at the very top. A waiter was writing a menu on a chalkboard outside, so we asked him if it was fine to sit outside with the dog. He encouraged us to go right in, but we decided to sit in a covered area outside, which provided welcome shelter from the uncharacteristically biting wind that's been blowing across South Devon for the past week.

While we looked at the menus a waitress came out and explained that we should order inside when we were ready. When Clare and I entered we found a packed café, atmospherically lit and with a stone arch at the back, reminiscent of Exeter's excellent Coffer Cellar. Bottles of every kind of condiment and preserve sat along the counter. After ordering breakfast, we went back outside to find Watson enjoying some 'dog sausage' that one of the waiters had brought out for him.

Another waiter and waitress brought our food out and checked we had any sauces and jams we wanted. The food was great, but what really stood out was the customer service: even with it being very busy, the staff were very attentive and made sure you had an enjoyable experience.

An hour later we had the unfortunate contrast of The Kitchen Shop on Foss Street. It's an attractive shop, both outside and inside, with the displays arranged not just thematically but also by colour: pinks and purples by the door and greens near the till. One item that caught my eye was a ring-shaped kitchen scale in the KitchenCraft Colourworks range. It had a minimalist design with bright colours, similar to the smaller iPods, but I wondered whether that came at the expense of performance. I took a quick picture, explaining to Clare that I'd check reviews online and if they were good we could pick it up next time we were in Dartmouth.

Immediately after I had said this, the owner of the shop came over and said “Did you just take a photograph?”. I said I had, and she promptly launched into a lecture about how rude I had been, saying that shops don't like customers taking photos and that just because she didn't want to put up a 'No photography' sign it didn't mean she allowed it. She demanded to know why I had taken a photo, and I explained that the scales had an unusual design and I wanted to check online what other people thought of them. She replied that I wouldn't find them cheaper online, and that if I wanted to know whether they were any good I should ask her, as she's never had anyone complain to her.

I left the shop vowing never to return.

I've often seen 'No photography' signs in museums and galleries, and obeyed them despite the suspicion that they're more about selling postcards in the gift shop than protecting the works. I can't recall seeing one in a normal shop before. Regardless, when someone breaks an unwritten rule you should always give them the benefit of the doubt, and inform them of their error politely.

The shop owner's comment about not find the scales cheaper online reveals her real fear: that allowing potential customers to take photos risks losing them to the large competitors that undercut her prices. Banning photography isn't going to help here – it would only take a few seconds using a web browser on a mobile phone to find that the scales are £3 cheaper on Amazon. Prohibiting mobile phone use would be an extreme response, and potential customers could just step outside anyway. When the most authoritarian governments struggle to suppress information, what chance does a small business owner have?

Independent businesses cannot compete on price: economies of scale will always favour larger companies. To survive, they must offer something their larger rivals cannot: local knowledge, superior service, a personalised product, or greater expertise. To her credit, the owner of The Kitchen Shop hinted at the last of these when she said to ask her whether the scales were any good. Once an independent business can offer these, they benefit from the most powerful form of marketing: word of mouth. Word of mouth cuts both ways though: while I'll be enthusiastically recommending Café Alf Resco to my friends, I'll advise they stay clear of The Kitchen Shop in Dartmouth, and this blog entry serves as a permanent public record of their contrasting approaches to customer service.

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