There isn’t a single successful business in Britain that doesn’t seek to grow through mergers and acquisitions. Consolidation, they call it. It’s a factor of competitive capitalism. Or greed, if you prefer. Whichever. The bigger you are, the more efficiently you can trade. Efficiency enables you to bring your prices down, blow off competitors — and hey Tesco. As Roberto Mancini, manager of Manchester City FC, would say, “Ees normal”.
So far so bad for Britain’s independent undertakers. Your days are surely numbered. Consolidation is under way. There’s no future for plankton in an ocean ruled by whales.
If you don’t believe it, consider the fate of our brewers. In 1900 there were 1,324 distinct beweries in England. By 1975 there were 141. Ees normal.
The technological development that made this possible was the invention of keg beers, which are sterilised and lifeless. They have a much longer life than living cask beers. They do not need to be kept so carefully, they can be transported for longer distances and they’re cheaper when they get there. Under the influence of advertising, consumers in the ’70s were easily persuaded to enjoy just a limited number of national brands. The little breweries could not afford to advertise. Older (elderly) readers of this blog will recall with misty eyes the halcyon days of Watney’s Red Barrel and Double Diamond, the Co-op and Dignity of their time.
The development which is making it possible today for the big players in the deathcare market to burn off the independents is, of course, the pay-now-die-later funeral plan whereby you stitch up tomorrow’s market share today. The adoption of embalming from America has arguably been a useful technology, too.
So what happened to Watney’s Red Barrel and Double Diamond, younger readers may ask. And where can I get some?
Well, just when the big brewers thought the field was theirs, something interesting happened. The Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) happened, the tables were turned and, sorry younger readers, the victorious keg beers were poured down the drains of history.
Camra’s campaign stimulated an appetite for well-made beers and choice. It appealed also to romantic values — and the great British pub is nothing if not steeped in nostalgia. In the words of James Watt, managing director of craft brewers BrewDog, “People want something better, something ethical, and something made by passionate people … I think there is growing disillusionment with products which are generic and mass-produced.”
He’s right, of course. The total number of breweries in England is back up from 141 to around 700 and rising. Which is why Camra is credited as the most successful single-issue consumer campaign of all time. In economists’ jargon, economies of scale have been trumped by economies of scope (choice). The big brewers can’t compete with the micro-breweries, most of which brew a variety of ales, because the production of small batches of cask beers does not fit profitably into scale production operations.
Camra, you may think, restored beer to its Golden Age. You’d be wrong. One of the reasons why keg beers were able to gain such traction was because most small brewers back in the day made ale that was cloudy, sour and full of sediment. Pretty horrible stuff, much of it. Today’s micro-brewers are of a far higher calibre than their forebears. The Golden Age of ale is, in fact, now. Camra didn’t turn the clock back, it wound it forward.
Is it possible that Britain’s independent undertakers might buck economic orthodoxy in the same way as the micro-brewers and chase off the purveyors of keg funerals?
They have a lot going for them. Like the micro-brewers, and unlike makers of, say, artisan cheese, they can compete on price with the consolidated undertakers. Better still, so incompetent and greedy are the consolidated undertakers that indie undertakers are universally cheaper. It’s absurd! The big players could fight back by starting a price war — but the likelihood of their doing so seems small. The micro-brewers are able to compete because of Gordon Brown’s 2002 Progressive Beer Duty (alternatively known as Small Brewers Relief), a 50 per cent reduction in beer duty for those breweries producing less than 5,000 hectolitres of beer. Indie undertakers need no such leg-up.
A great many of today’s indies are as good as it gets and much better than the generality of smalltime undertakers of the past. They have a lot in common with our micro-brewers: they’re intelligent, savvy and skilful — a new breed. They are characterful, individualistic and very much their own people, a welcome contrast with the corporates who tend towards bland homogeneity in spite of some excellent staff at branch level.
Because indies are passionate business owners, they are prepared to work incredibly hard. They offer a service which is of and for their community. They offer a quality of personal service which is everything a funeral shopper could want. Personal service does not fit profitably into scale production operations.
It is unlikely that a Camref (the Campaign for Real Funerals) could achieve for undertaking what Camra has achieved so rapidly for beer, the thirst for the latter being the stronger. What’s more, most funeral shoppers have no idea that there are such brilliant indies out there.
So it would be good, perhaps, to see our best indies walk with more of a strut, make more noise about what they do and take the fight to the keggists. A well-kept beer is good for drinkers; a well-kept secret is no use to funeral shoppers.
ED’S NOTE: Real ales are brewed for all occasions and come with all manner of characterful names. They include: Tactical Nuclear Penguin, Bitter Bully, Posh Pooch, Festive Totty, Gonzo Porter, Ragged Bitch, Crop Circle, Summer Lightning, Bishop’s Farewell, Truffler Dry, Bad Elf, Torpedo Extra IPA, Naked Ladies, Storm King, Hop Wallop and Bonkers Conkers.
So far as we know, no maker of real/craft beer brews one specially for funeral wakes. There’s a big market here. If you can’t brew one, can you at least suggest a good name?