Local hero

Charles No Comments

In the matter of household shopping we look back nostalgically to the high street of yesteryear. Ah, those were the days. The butcher, the baker, the grocer. Ooh, hello, Postman Pat! In every shop a cheery greeting. And great personal service.

Gone. For ever. Whatever happened to them?

You bankrupted them. Yes, you.

You trooped off to the unloveable supermarket, didn’t you, where the food is fresher, the choice greater, the prices lower? Sure, the experience is impersonal, but does that bother you? No. You can look after yourself, thank you very much.

Small may be beautiful but bigger is better. Beastly it may be, but biggest is best.

Affordability is the critical factor here. Yes, a handbuilt car is the one you’d like. In your dreams. Back here on earth, c’mon let’s get grounded, the mass produced car is the one you can afford.

Funerals are no exception. You don’t want a production line funeral. You don’t want to be borne to your final resting place by Tesco. You don’t want to deal with a faceless organisation. You’d rather interact with humans who seem to care about you, have time for you, people who answer to you, not their line manager.

You want a bespoke, handbuilt, boutique funeral. Because small is beautiful.

And here we come to one of the great paradoxes of the funeral industry:

You can have one!

Any business which can reduce its unit price can make itself more affordable. Any undertaking enterprise that can open a few branches, share a car pool, operate a central mortuary, drive deals with coffin makers and other suppliers and work its employees to death, can, according to the immutable laws of business, do it cheaper. Obviously.

But they don’t.

In fact, a handbuilt funeral, a boutique undertaker, is likely to cost you considerably less than one of the big chains.

Whaa?! Why do they charge more?

Because they can. Because they’re greedy.

If you’re not going to compete on price, what’s left? Service, of course. But service, as we know, consumes time. It is the first victim of economies of scale. That doesn’t matter a bit if you’re buying your groceries. But when you buy a funeral, it’s service that matters most.

And it’s because the big chains of funeral directors, most of them, can’t offer what most people want most—service—that they’ve got nothing to boast about. So, when they buy up a small, independent undertaker, they don’t put a huge poster in the window proclaiming UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT! Oh no. They go on sort of pretending to be the little guy they bought out. Are they ashamed to confess who they are? You answer that. Is this practice a bit shady? The judgement is entirely yours.

Can’t be too careful in my business. I used to hold the romantic notion that the law was all about justice until a property developer, enraged by my naïveté, told me it was all about intimidation. “You hire the most expensive barrister you can afford and you bloody well terrify the living s**t out of them!” he yelled patiently. He did it a lot. The yelling, too. He drove a handbuilt car.

Down in Sandhurst, Berkshire, Holmes and Sons, Funeral Directors, are keen to point out to their customers the difference between themselves and their competitors. This is the point of marketing: to define your USP and set yourself apart. Would that other funeral directors understood this First Law. On their unusually well written website David Holmes says this:

Locally it can be hard to know who is who in the funeral business. Some companies trade with names that can easily confuse. Camberley & District funeral directors are in fact the Co-op, as are George Parker in Yateley. In Fleet the Co-op name appears above the door. In some parts of Surrey & Hampshire, the Office of Fair Trading has forced the Co-op to sell some funeral businesses. They had become too dominant, there was a lack of real competition said the OFT. The Co-op´s legal people insist we tell you that being big doesn´t of course mean being bad.

In Fleet, Farnborough and Frimley the Goddards & Ford–Mears firms are in fact owned by a major independent UK car dealer. Mr Goddard sold out many years ago; we suspect local families would have no idea who actually owns the businesses nowadays, they just remember the name. In Aldershot ´Finches´ are now part of Dignity Plc, a major national chain trading with hundreds of names.

We believe bereaved families benefit from dealing with owners rather than managers answering to distant directors. With David Holmes & Sons YOU are the priority, not Head Office rules and figures. Our service is second to none – our charges are reasonable. We´re not under pressure to sell you anything. For your protection, we are members of both respected trade associations.

The gist of what Mr Holmes has to say here is easily grasped: he is beset by Co-ops and by branches belonging to other funeral chains, and they are not, he reckons, trading transparently. Many of these branches are owned by Southern Co-operatives, an independent Co-op society which, nonetheless, is about to re-brand its funeral operation under Funeralcare, yet retain its independence. Confused? I am. Why the heck would they want to do that?

The OFT did, indeed, compel The Co-operative Group Limited (CWG), the mother of Funeralcare, to sell off some of its branches following its purchase of the Fairways Group in 2006. The OFT’s grounds were that this acquisition could result in substantial lessening of competition in specified areas. When CWG proposed to sell some of its branches to Southern Co-ops it was told that it must not on the grounds that Southern was not “independent of and unconnected to CGL”.

All this information is in the public domain. Mr Holmes’s facts are easily checked and verified.

But his is a new business in the area. He is an independent, and proud of it. What, therefore, is the response of the Co-op? Raise its game? Trade transparently? Meet Mr Holmes on his own ground?

None of the above. They want to meet him in the High Court. Yes, can you believe it, they’re threatening legal action against Mr Holmes unless he removes the reference to the Office of Fair Trading. Is this Southern Co-ops or Funeralcare doing the suing? Sue King, press officer at Southern Co-ops, has promised to tell me.

Nice one, Co-op. If you can’t beat em, trash em.

In your dreams.

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