The Westmorland services at Tebay just off the M6 are an object lesson in how businesses can make money and still be a good thing, and a grim contrast to the evident attitudes of many big businesses. This isn’t an observation born out of sentimentality for small business. It’s more a matter of disgust with the reality of common practice, and anger because it’s naked greed and short-termism rather than size that’s driving indefensible bad practice.

Driving up the M6 for the most part is not a pleasant experience. For the much of the day it’s only when you pass north of the Blackpool junction that you lose the nose-to-tail driving conditions, and as you breathe in that relief you’re embraced by the breath-taking beauty of the Cumbrian hills. The Westmorland service area takes this beauty as its starting point, ensuring that its customers can look out over the landscape through large windows. It also works to turn the experience of the journey into something delightful. There’s none of the gaudy plastic of a bog standard motorway service area. The good food is attractively laid out, not over-packaged and it manages the simple trick of not looking like a greasy canteen. The shops offer local produce, encouraging you to be aware of your location, and while it might not be cheap, the evident quality more than justifies the prices.

I don’t know much about the commercial operation behind the service area. I imagine it’s a privately held family company, free to concentrate on maintaining the quality of the experience it offers without compromise, something it’s successfully achieved for the fifteen years I’ve been calling there. Staff seem cheerful and ready to help. The place takes evident and justified pride in what it does, which is to demonstrate what a real focus on delivering a good customer experience looks like.

On the same journey I stopped for lunch just north of Birmingham, in one of those bog standard service areas, because of course when you’re on a motorway you have little choice. The commercial basis for these service areas is evidently a little different from Tebay, with high street retailers and food giants like Whitbread pushing their different brands under the same roof. The overall effect is as tacky and every bit as unpleasant as the motorway conditions you have probably just left. The food is at best mediocre, but that doesn’t stop most of the retailers charging premium prices. A Costa coffee costs nearly a pound more (ie about 40 per cent more) for exactly the same product as you’d buy in any town outlet. Whitbread, which owns the Costa chain, will probably argue that rental and operating costs are higher, though it’s hard to believe this (higher than their outlets in central London?). And if the landowner is really charging so much, presumably it justifies this by the footfall it can deliver. If it can’t then the tenants should be negotiating harder. Either way there’s no justification for passing these costs on to the hapless customer.

We can accept higher costs naturally enough when we are being offered a premium experience. Ironically this was always the rationale for the high street coffee chains that have often pushed aside local cafés: not only that they served a high quality product (good coffee isn’t cheap) but you were offered comfy chairs, a viable space to work if you chose (complete with wifi) and the feeling that you were welcome to stay for as long as you wanted. But motorway service stations reverse this rationale: you will be charged even more for something that is certainly no better than you’ll find elsewhere, and in truth most of the food is decidedly poor. Not only are the food and fuel prices inflated. Even something as routine as a cash machine carries a premium (at Tebay on the other hand you’ll find an ordinary bank ATM dispensing cash at no charge).

It’s very hard not to feel that you’re being ripped off at every turn, and that this is happening because for once you have no choice. Hard then not to feel that these businesses, for all their protestations of being customer-focused, will take full advantage of a stressful situation to squeeze as much money for doing as little as possible out of you. Perhaps you’ll think this is not surprising, that this is what businesses always do, but Westmorland services demonstrate that it doesn’t need to be like this. Actions always speak louder than words, and given this evident rapaciousness, the routine proclamations of customer focus by many of these businesses are simply nauseating in their hypocrisy.

Perhaps you’ll say that Westmorland services with their rejection of routine corporate garishness appeal primarily to my middle class sensibility, but then I’d have to reply that unlike you I’m not so snobbish that I think good taste and good quality are the prerogative of the middle classes.

There’s a general point about corporate design here. At the end of my journey I walked around Dumfries enjoying the often fine Victorian architecture of the town, but as in any other British town that architecture vanishes at street level, obliterated by a mishmash of gaudy plastic shop signage. Again I have to ask why accepted standards of corporate behaviour have to be so low? In modern shopping centres it probably doesn’t matter (the overall design standards are similarly bland and low), but why do companies feel that sensitivity to the built environment is less important than the ubiquitous swagger of their branding? I’m not suggesting that they need to drop their logos and typefaces, the established elements of their corporate identity (though such a swagger doesn’t impress with its thoughtlessness). They just need more care (and modesty) in how they place them in any older buildings they choose to occupy. In Stratford upon Avon the local authority insists on this, and I don’t suppose that any of the high street outlets there suffer as a result.

Meanwhile, back on the issue of class, remember the differences between Westmorland and other service areas are not about affordability (actually a decent coffee costs less in Tebay than it does in a Costa motorway outlet). You don’t have to buy any of the local produce or products in its shops and you can get pretty much everything else you’d expect in a motorway service area for the same or less than you’d pay in a standard area.

It’s about the choice between delivering something expensive and close-to-nasty, or something good, and about the cynicism of the companies that are prepared to trade on their brand recognition among passers-by, and then put it at risk by ripping off their loyal customers.

By the way I have no commercial relationship with the Westmorland company. I just think they are doing a great job and should be praised to the heavens for it. You can find out more about them here.



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