The web will destroy McDonalds, Starbucks and all the big chains. Discuss. It won’t, but it might weaken their grip.
The big brands have one huge advantage: they offer consistency. If you go to one of the well-known pizza, fast food or sandwich outlets, you know what you will get. Same if you go to one of the big hotel chains. You will not necessarily get the best, but if you don’t know any better, you will be safe. That is where the web comes in: it can make sure you do know better.
If you click around, you will find review sites for pretty much anything. Products make up one side of it, but here the choice is nearly always between one big brand and another. I am more interested in areas where there is a genuine choice between multiple chains and the little guy, because here there is still a battle to be fought. If I can use my computer (or my mobile phone/PDA) to find that little gem round the corner, why would I go to the bland chain I know so well?
Say I want a nice cup of tea and a bun in the morning. I am in London, so I go to the London Review of Breakfasts (londonreviewofbreakfasts.blogspot.com). This is a swishly designed blog site that likes to lay on the prose: “We love going out for breakfast. We love the hungry hours of anticipation …” Its subject is the ‘greasy spoon’, cheap and cheerful cafés that may well sell wonderful tea and buns, but may equally be dreadful. Here you can pick an area, see what cafés are reviewed, and find out about them. Or rather find out the opinion of one person, written with a nom de plume and rather stylishly (I suspect there may be rather fewer authors than there are authors’ names).
But as this is a blog there is space for comment, which is where it starts to get interesting. My local café has a glowing write-up from ‘Herby Banger’, followed by two comments. One agrees it is wonderful, the other says it is a huge disappointment. Were I coming to my area, I wouldn’t rush to the place, because I don’t have enough information; the chain coffee shop on the high street might still draw me in.
Nevertheless, we are in the early days of sites such as these and they will (I hope) grow. I found similar sites from Australia (thebreakfastblog.blogspot.com) and Canada (www.breakfastblogger.com), as well as a UK-based blog (www.eggbaconchipsandbeans.com) run by the author Russell Davies. The problem is that they all have too few reviews to provide a decent consensus. What I want is a café version of TripAdvisor, which is the mummy and daddy of user-provided review sites. It belongs to Expedia, the travel booking site, and is closely integrated into it – but as Expedia is an agent rather than a provider of facilities there is not (or should not be) any conflict of interest. No sign certainly that criticism is being censored.
TripAdvisor (www.tripadvisor.com or www.tripadvisor.co.uk) says that it has ‘5m+ traveller reviews and opinions of hotels, vacations and more’. Volume of comments is not a problem. Look for New York hotels, and after a couple of clicks you will find reviews of 329, ranked by popularity. You can filter these by neighbourhood, price and star rating. The top rated hotel is the Sofitel New York, which shows that in the hotel world at least, chains can still be best. You can read 570 reviews of the Sofitel, each accompanied by ‘Liked’ and ‘Disliked’ comments, as well as ‘Tips/secrets’. The ratings are gathered together to show which type of visitor is likely to appreciate the hotels (couples/romantics apparently).
TripAdvisor uses the full panoply of webbery to make the reviews more useful: information on the contributor (location, other reviews), hotel photos and ‘candid traveller photos’. Park 79 hotel (208th in the popularity index) shows what appears to be a door leaning up against a wall, along with a very mixed set of comments. You would have to read them carefully before deciding whether the pros were more important to you than the cons – but the information is all here. Of course you may decide that it’s safer to go to a chain you know, but at least you have the choice.
Let’s assume that other review site become big and useful too, what sort of groups should be shaking in their branded boots? Sandwich bar chains are starting to eat into an area traditionally run by independents, so in London I would be looking at Gutter EATS (www.guttereats.co.uk), ‘the new way to find your lunch online’. This smart site lets you choose a district, see the outlets with the most stars, and read about them. The reviews are too few and too short to be a great help at the moment, but if word spreads I can see this being a real challenge to the chains (which are reviewed, but generally get dusty write-ups).
As for pizzerias, in the UK a few big chains dominate; in the US I am told they have about half the market. TripAdvisor is starting to help, though in an unstructured way: I put ‘New York pizzerias’ into its search box and found 125 reviews. But there is always someone prepared to dedicate an implausible amount of time to anything at all, which is why I was not surprised to find Slice (www.sliceny.com),which call itself ‘America’s favorite pizza weblog’. It too is somewhat unstructured – more like a diary-style blog than a set of reviews – but there is a huge amount here. When Mr Slice gets his pizza map of New York working properly, this will be a seriously useful site.
So there we are. The big brands can be challenged by the web, or rather by The People using the web. TripAdvisor must already be having an effect on the way people choose hotels, and the brands must be smarting. Am I being a hopeless optimist in believing that the onward march of the giants is unstoppable? I don’t think so, I really don’t.