If small is beautiful, look lovely

Charles Cowling

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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?

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whistle blower
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whistle blower

Tell me. Mr Tinning. If your so proud of your company why do you hide your business name behind. Independent named undertakers. Names. Is this so you can let other peoples names take responsibility for you own incompetence. I’m sure a great deal of money exchanges hands when these little fish are brought out. Surely any one would want to. Put there own name over the door. Unless of course they have something to hide. Is this not a case of false advertisement. As it don’t say what it does on the tin

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[…] A follow-up to Charles Cowling’s thirst-quenching piece about the need for independent undertakers to blow their trumpets louder to steal market share from the corporate chains, here.  […]

Richard
Guest
Richard

Great piece, Charles. Indies do indeed need to communicate their plentiful USPs to steal market share from the corporates, especially as they already seem to win on price. It seems the big chains of funeral directors are neither IKEA (basic product and service, affordable price) nor John Lewis (quality and service that’s deemed good value). The internet is in so many ways the friend of small business in an age of corporate homogeneity. Just as big media brands have to compete for a following with upstart bloggers, retail giants have to fight for business with companies offering bespoke products without… Read more »

Angie McLachlan
Guest

Some funeral beers to ponder. ‘Last Orders’ – A small beer, one for the road. ‘Your Round’ – One to savour, but never a half-pint. ‘Worm Turning’ – A beer flavoured with earthy hops. ‘Grave Robbers Glug’ – Fortified beer with a warming kick, for late evening winter burials. ‘Stiff Neck’ – A sharp flavour pale ale, with zesty lemon aftertaste. ‘Bearer’s Bung’ A heavy brown ale, with a malty note. ‘Coff-in-Cup’ A ruby red ale. ‘Creaking Bier’ A dry slightly flat beer. ‘Dead Eye’ A white lager style. ‘Parson’s Pick Me Up’ Fortified ale, drunk slightly warmed with a… Read more »

Rosie
Guest

Brilliant Angie,

I can only share with you the name of my favourite pint, produced by my local micro.

It should be the choice for default funerals, savoured by many a lazy undertaker.

It is ‘Swift one’

Ru Callender
Guest

” Who’s getting the biers in?” Brilliant Michael.

Charles
Guest

Andrew, that’s brilliant. And Jonathan, ditto.

Michael, I agree that undertakers do not inspire a lapel badge-wearing following. But I think there is much they could do to make themselves perceptibly loveable – because an awful lot of them actually are.

Michael Jarvis
Guest
Michael Jarvis

Charles: I agree with you absolutely. I have come across many small independents for whom I have great respect. They provide an excellent (and competitive) service. Sadly, though, it appears that not so many take enough trouble with PR in their wider community.

Jonathan
Guest
Jonathan

First of all, I think CAMREF could be better named CAREFUN; but I’d think a name for a wake beer might be ‘Cwoffin Ale’?

If I were to start a new people’s funeral director, I’d call our firm ‘Wundertakers’ (to distinguish us from that well-known national brand, ‘Blundertakers’).

Andrew Rush
Guest
Andrew Rush

Not a new suggestion, but a wake could always feature Undertaker – see http://www.winclebeer.co.uk/Wincle_Website_Cask_Beers.html#

“There’s a touch of the night about this dark coloured bitter. Its complex, nutty and fruit undertones last rite to the bitter end.”

I’ve tried it (in the interests of research) and it’s not bad.

Poppy Mardall
Guest

Inspiring stuff Charles!

Michael Jarvis
Guest
Michael Jarvis

Splendid piece, Charles, but it’s worth remembering that CAMRA was founded by consumers (four Englishmen including the indefatigable Michael Hardman, who were on holiday in Ireland when the idea came to them). Its continuing success is entirely attributable to organised and focused consumer pressure. Even so it took them the best part of 30 years to get membership to a hundred thousand. Much as I would love to imagine it, it’s hard to visualise tens of thousands of members of the public wearing lapel badges in support of their local undertaker, so you are right: the way forward for the… Read more »