The independent coffee shop had its obituary written when Starbucks and Costa started to expand across the UK in the late 90s. However, in recent years we have seen the hunted become hunters with the emergence of a new stronger independent sector, now challenging the bigger brands for market share.

The number of coffee outlets in the UK has almost trebled in the last six years growing from just under 7,000 in 2010, to nearly 19,000 in 2016, and forecast to grow to over 27,000 by 2020.

With over 2 billion cups of coffee a year now being bought from UK coffee shops, the consumer has become increasingly knowledgeable and discerning about product quality and the in-store experience. This has been encouraged by independents who prioritise quality from sourcing through to roasting, and focus on training baristas to a high standard. Consumers are responding well to this specialist offering and the independent sector is forecast to grow more quickly than the overall market; there are an estimated 1,400 speciality independent coffee shops in the UK, and this number is expected to double by 2020.

Although chain outlets still dominate, independents are forcing established brands to keep up with new trends and consumer demands. The now ubiquitous flat white was introduced into the UK by independents and many chains are now selling specialist products. Starbucks, for example, is offering cold brew coffee, which only a few years ago would have been unheard of by the majority of consumers.

The challenge for independents is how to scale their business while maintaining product quality and without losing their distinctive character. There are some independent coffee chains, such as the Workshop Coffee Company and Caravan, which have grown successfully by developing a vertically integrated business model, operating as both roasters and retailers, which enables them to better focus on quality from sourcing through to delivery of experience, as well as open up other opportunities, such as wholesaling to other outlets.

While the independents might not be a threat individually to the likes of Costa and Starbucks, as a group they play an important role in the UK coffee market. In catering to an increasingly sophisticated customer they drive innovation, forcing the chains to up their game, particularly regarding store refurbishment and product development. And that can only be a good thing for the consumer.

Frances Perrin