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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Air pollution in London is now so bad it’s affecting lung development

Cough, splutter. Image: Getty.

Air pollution is known to contribute to early deaths from respiratory and cardiovascular disease. There is also mounting evidence to show that breathing polluted air increases the risk of dementia. Children are vulnerable, too: exposure to air pollution has been associated with babies being born underweight, as well as poorer cognitive development and lung function during childhood.

Cities including London are looking to tackle the social, economic and environmental costs of air pollution by improving urban air quality using low emission zones. In these zones, the most polluting vehicles are restricted from entering, or drivers are penalised to encourage them to take up lower emission technologies. London’s low emission zone was rolled out in four stages from February 2008 to January 2012, affecting mainly heavy and light goods vehicles, such as delivery trucks and vans.

But our new research, involving more than 2,000 children in four of London’s inner-city boroughs, reveals that while these measures are beginning to improve air quality, they do not yet protect children from the harmful effects of air pollution. It is the most detailed assessment of how a low emission zone has performed to date.

Young lungs

Our study focused mainly on the boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Hackney, but also included primary schools in the City of London and Greenwich. All of these areas experienced high levels of air pollution from traffic, and exceeded the annual EU limit for nitrogen dioxide (NO₂). What’s more, they have a very young demographic and are among the UK’s most deprived areas.

Between 2008-9 and 2013-14, we measured changes to air pollution concentrations in London, while also conducting a detailed examination of children’s lung function and respiratory symptoms in these areas.

Every year for five years, we measured the lung function in separate groups of 400 children, aged eight to nine years old. We then considered these measurements alongside the children’s estimated exposure to air pollution, which took into account where they lived, and the periods they spent at home and at school.

Our findings confirmed that long-term exposure to urban air pollution is related to smaller lung volumes among children. The average exposure for all children over the five years of our study was 40.7 micrograms of NO₂ per cubic metre of air, which was equivalent to a reduction in lung volume of approximately 5 per cent.

Changes of this magnitude would not be of immediate clinical significance; the children would be unaware of them and they would not affect their daily lives. But our results show that children’s lungs are not developing as well as they could. This is important, because failure to attain optimal lung growth by adulthood often leads to poor health in later life.

Over the course of the study, we also observed some evidence of a reduction in rhinitis (a constant runny nose). But we found no reduction in asthma symptoms, nor in the proportion of children with underdeveloped lungs.


Air pollution falls

While the introduction of the low emission zone did relatively little to improve children’s respiratory health, we did find positive signs that it was beginning to reduce pollution. Using data from the London Air Quality Network – which monitors air pollution – we detected small reductions in concentrations of NO₂, although overall levels of the pollutant remained very high in the areas we looked at.

The maximum reduction in NO₂ concentrations we detected amounted to seven micrograms per cubic metre over the five years of our study, or roughly 1.4 micrograms per cubic metre each year. For context, the EU limit for NO₂ concentrations is 40 micrograms per cubic metre. Background levels of NO₂ for inner city London, where our study was located, decreased from 50 micrograms to 45 micrograms per cubic metre, over five years. NO₂ concentrations by the roadside experienced a greater reduction, from 75 micrograms to 68 micrograms per cubic metre, over the course of our study.

By the end of our study in 2013-14, large areas of central London still weren’t compliant with EU air quality standards – and won’t be for some time at this rate of change.

We didn’t detect significant reductions in the level of particulate matter over the course of our study. But this could be because a much larger proportion of particulate matter pollution comes from tyre and brake wear, rather than tail pipe emissions, as well as other sources, so small changes due to the low emission zone would have been hard to quantify.

The route forward

Evidence from elsewhere shows that improving air quality can help ensure children’s lungs develop normally. In California, the long-running Children’s Health Study found that driving down pollution does reduce the proportion of children with clinically small lungs – though it’s pertinent to note that NO₂ concentrations in their study in the mid-1990s were already lower than those in London today.

Our findings should encourage local and national governments to take more ambitious actions to improve air quality, and ultimately public health. The ultra-low emission zone, which will be introduced in central London on 8 April 2019, seems a positive move towards this end.

The scheme, which will be expanded to the boundaries set by the North and South circular roads in October 2021, targets most vehicles in London – not just a small fraction of the fleet. The low emission zone seems to be the right treatment – now it’s time to increase the dose.

The Conversation

Ian Mudway, Lecturer in Respiratory Toxicology, King's College London and Chris Griffiths, Professor of Primary Care, Queen Mary University of London.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.