What a map of the UK's 1,650 branches of Greggs can tell us about the British high street

Pick one. Image: Greggs.

We at CityMetric know you love maps. But when we came across a map showing all the branches of bakery chain Greggs, across the UK (we all have hobbies, OK?), we thought it was enough to simply share it on social media and wonder at the sheer number of them:

But then the questions started rolling in. Why only one in Northern Ireland? Why so many in northern cities like Glasgow, Newcastle and Manchester? Why none in Devon and Cornwall? And what, exactly, is a second-hand Greggs:

Readers, we took it upon ourselves to find out. 

(What follows is a very in-depth look at the popular high street bakery chain, including, arguably, excessive amounts of detail. If you don't actually like Greggs, you might want to leave now.) 

First things first. Why are there so many Greggs branches? 

According to Greggs' head office, despite constant headlines about the "death of the British high street", there are around 1,650 Greggs shopfronts in Britain.

To put that in context, that's nearly double the number of Starbucks (according to Statista, 842 as of this year) or McDonald's (around 1,200). Somewhat surprisingly, Greggs is only pipped by coffee shop Costa, which has over 1,800 branches, and sandwich shop Subway, which opened its 2000th in February 2015.

So what's the secret? As far as I can tell, part of it is that Greggs isn't afraid to open multiple branches in very close proximity. Take the centre of Glasgow:

Or Manchester:

Greggs specialises in food to go, and it's apparently successfully calculated that for customers, this means the closer the better - high street cafes are now so plentiful that even that extra 200 metres could prompt a customer to choose Pret instead. It also manages its own supply chain, "from production to distribution to point of sale". This means that opening more stores close together makes economic sense - the Greggs lorry is already coming that way anyway.

Most Greggs stores are directly owned, not franchised - but they have a small number of franchised branches in "closed trading environments" like universities or "travel hubs".

The brand is also fine with opening up on non-high streets and opening up franchises in train stations, perhaps in reaction to the reduced footfall on high streets. On its website, the company states:

A high proportion of our openings are in areas away from traditional high streets as we diversify our portfolio in line with market trends.  Working with franchise partners we have extended the Greggs offer to previously inaccessible travel and convenience locations.

I asked a Greggs spokesperson why there were so many in Glasgow and Manchester in particular, and was told that it's simply a timing issue:

Greggs has traded longer in these major cities than most of the UK and consequently have a more mature shop estate in these areas.

Soon, all British cities will be stuffed to the gills with Greggs. You heard it here first. 

Why only one in Northern Ireland?

Roughly the same answer as above: the first branch there only just opened, but Greggs is planning another within the month, and more soon.

From the Greggs spokesperson, who was growing increasingly perplexed by my questions by this point: 

Northern Ireland has been a potential target for Greggs for some time but England, Scotland and Wales has been our primary focus. We were delighted to open our first site in NI with Applegreen on the M2 just north of Belfast and are opening a second store with Applegreen at Crankhill, Belfast on the 11th December 2015. We would expect more openings in the future.

What is a "second hand Greggs"?

These bakery outlets sell day-old pasties and pastries for a very reduced price. The stock in the standard Greggs shops is baked onsite, so the fare in the second-hand shops is still relatively fresh. 

Here's the one in Barry, Wales:

Image: Google.

Why so few in the southwest?

Our instinct here was that people living in the home of the pasty might not be so convinced by Greggs' versions (slightly flaccid sausage rolls, pasties shaped like squares) of their traditional foodstuffs. The Greggs spokesperson was a little reticent on this point, but implied that folks in Devon are slightly more sympathetic to the brand than the fiercely traditional Cornish: 

There are currently no stores in Cornwall. We are focussed at the moment on extending our reach into more parts of Devon.

Sorry Cornwall. No Greggs for you. 

Any other trade secrets?

I also hear, though Greggs head office hasn't confirmed this, that the store opts for relatively short leases with break clauses, as opposed to long leases or property ownership. As a result, it actually closes stores relatively frequently, perhaps to follow the pastry-eaters to a better location. 

The brand has also moved into breakfast service, and earlier opening hours, to compete with the breakfast offerings at other cafes and shops. Recently, it launched a bake-at-home range, sold through Iceland supermarkets, so you can make bakes in the comfort of your own kitchen: 

Image: author's own.

Why do people like it so much? 

In 2013, Ian Gregg, founder of Greggs, released a kind of business autobiography called  BREAD: the story of Greggs. It contains many interesting facts about the brand, including that, when asked what they missed most about home, British armed forces said "Greggs". According to the Metro, said survey resulted in Greggs providing catering for an army base in Germany in 2012. 


Also, as part of a restructuring a few years ago, the brand appointed special managers for each food category to manage recipes, promotions and pricing,so you could literally be the "cake manager" for Greggs. Dream job. 

In the book's introduction, Ian Gregg himself puts forward his own suggestions for the brand's success: 

Perhaps customers identify with a business that still retains old-fashioned values, that seems local rather than global and doesn't put shareholders before customers and staff.

Or, perhaps, it's more straightforward than that:

Maybe it's simply because the sandwiches, sausage rolls and doughnuts taste great, are good value, and are a treat most people can afford.

As someone who would rank a £1.40 Greggs Chicken Bake among her top 10 all-time favourite meals, I'd argue it was the latter.

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The best way to make housing more affordable? Raise interest rates

Lol, no. Image: Getty.

Speaking to the Conservative Party conference in September 2017, the UK prime minister, Theresa May, gave a stark assessment of the UK housing market which made for depressing listening for many young people: “For many the chance of getting onto the housing ladder has become a distant dream”, she said.

Now a new report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) provides further, clear evidence of this. The study finds that home ownership among 25 to 34-year-olds has declined sharply over the past 20 years. Home ownership rates have declined from 43 per cent at age 27 for someone born in the late 1970s, to just 25 per cent for someone aged 27 who was born in the late 1980s.

The most significant decline has been for middle-income young people, whose rate of home ownership has fallen from 65 per cent in 1995-6 to 27 per cent now – most significantly hitting aspirant buyers in London and the South-East.

Causes and consequences

The IFS study lays the blame for all this on the growing gap between house prices and incomes. Adjusting for inflation, house prices have risen 150 per cent in the 20 years to 2015-16, while real incomes for 25 to 34-year-olds have grown by 22 per cent (and almost all of that growth happened before the 2008 crash).

A bleak picture. Image: Institute for Fiscal Studies.

But, as the report acknowledges, the problem goes much deeper than this. Home ownership rates differ by region. Although there has been a decline in home ownership rates for young people across all areas of Great Britain, the decline is less significant in the North East and Cumbria as well as in Scotland and the South West. The biggest decline in ownership has been in the South-East, the North-West (excluding Cumbria) and London.

So a person aged 25 to 34 is more than twice as likely to own their own home in Cumbria, as their counterpart in London. Worse, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to own their own homes – even after controlling for differences in education and earnings. Home ownership continues to reflect a deeper inequality of opportunity in our society.


More houses needed

Part of the problem is that both Labour and Conservative governments have seen housing as a single, stand-alone market and have focused their attention on what is happening to prices in London. But housing is a number of different markets, which have regional variations and different interactions between the owner-occupier, private rented and social rented sectors.

Regional variations in house prices for similar sized properties reflect the imbalances of the economy: it is heavily reliant on financial services, which are concentrated in London, while the public sector makes up a significant share of many local economies – particularly in the North. Migration from across the UK to overcrowded and expensive areas – such as London and the South-East – have put property prices in those areas even further out of reach for would-be buyers.

To make matters worse, both Labour and Conservative governments have routinely failed to build enough houses. While the current government’s aim to build 300,000 new properties a year by 2020 is welcome, it is simply not enough to meet the backlog in demand – let alone address the fundamental affordability problem.

Where homes are being built, they’re often the wrong types of homes, in the wrong places. Family homes are being built, despite there being some 4m under-occupied such properties across the country.

Not that long ago, government was reducing the housing stock in many parts of the North, through the disastrous Housing Market Renewal programme. Houses are currently being sold in smaller cities such as Liverpool and Stoke-on-Trent for just £1. And none of the government’s actions suggest that ministers understand these issues, or are prepared to address them.

House price inflation – and the awful affect it is having on home ownership rates for young people – is part of a wider problem of the global asset bubble. This bubble has seen huge increases in the price of assets – stocks, housing, bonds – in high income countries such as the UK. Successive governments have helped to fuel this through quantitative easing, ultra-cheap money and successive raids on pension funds.

The ConversationWhat’s needed to address this asset bubble is a substantive increase in interest rates. But while this may slow the growth in house prices, the sad truth is it will do nothing to make housing more affordable for most young people.

Chris O'Leary, Deputy Director, Policy Evaluation and Research Unit and Senior Lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.