Check your receipts: Here’s where Cambridge students are spending their money

How Cambridge students are spending their money and how this impacts the Cambridge economy

Cambridge economy investigation shopping Student Shopping

Studying at Cambridge is hard – choosing where to get coffee is harder. Despite the student centre of Cambridge being relatively small, the array of shops across the city is vast, leaving us with a seemingly endless choice in where we shop. Chains clash with independent outlets for rule of our high street, begging the question of where do students buy their brew? When you could have a coffee that’s recommended by Vogue, it’s hard to imagine there would be any competition – but there undoubtedly is.

To find out how we contribute to the retail and hospitality scene, The Tab  surveyed a number of students across the University about their daily spending habits. We asked students where they shopped the most, what they prioritised when spending money, and whether they thought about the impact of their spending. We also spoke to local experts, Anne Beamish, from IndieCambridge, and Ian Sandison, from Cambridge BID, about students´spending habits and their impacts on the Cambridge economy. Here’s what we found out: 

Chain stores or Independent?

In the data collected by The Tab, almost half of Cambridge University students said they actively seek independent local shops when spending money in town. Many students said that independent shops made Cambridge a better place to live, with businesses such as Jack’s Gelato, Cambridge Crepes and The Van of Life actively contributing to the student culture. This comes as a pleasant surprise, considering Cambridge was once voted the UK’s worst ‘clone-town‘ (i.e the town with the most chain shops, and least individuality) by The New Economics Foundation.

The high street in Cambridge was once voted the worst for individuality in the UK (Image Credit: CambridgeBid through Cambridge BID)

The conscious decision by students to support local businesses is “significant” according to the founder of IndieCambridge, Anne Beamish. Local businesses have been hit hard by the pandemic with a lack of tourism and repeated lockdowns causing independent shops in Cambridge to be “rightly worried” about their future.

Street food and independent shops seem to be most popular amongst students

Ian Sandison told us that “with international visitors missing for a second summer, the student, student-parent and visiting friends of students´ markets are very important.” Students certainly seem to be strong supporters of the local economy, and the area which saw the most significant support in the Tab’s survey was street food, with 73 per cent of respondents spending money in the market more than twice last term and 30 per cent calling it their go-to place for food.

Cambridge students also favoured independent shops for their sweet fix, with Cambridge Crepes and Jack’s Gelato being the most popular businesses; 40 per cent of students told us they visited these businesses multiple times last term. According to Anne, the popularity of local businesses in recent times is a result of the changing function of the high street, morphing from buying essentials to becoming a “social destination”, especially in the wake of COVID-19. This in-person social spending is essential to Cambridge; of every £1 spent at an independent shop, 63p stays in the Cambridge economy, this drops to 5p when we buy online.

Ever wondered why you spent twenty minutes in the Pret queue?

Aside from online destinations, chain stores saw overwhelming support in coffee shops and cafes, with 76 per cent of respondents spending money at Pret a Manger, Costa and Cafe Nero over independent spots like Bould Brothers and Fitzbillies. Many put this down to convenience and price, but others told us that shopping at local, independent stores isn’t just about parting with money; it’s a social experience. 

This sentiment was echoed by Jack’s Gelato, who told the Tab: “We enjoy being a part of the social aspect of student life in Cambridge and the energy that they bring. It is great being a local business here – we know so many of our customers, and we love that.” Stores like Cambridge Crepes have student discounts, and The Van of Life, which owes its name to Cambridge students, is a landmark of any good night out. All of this shows just how much of our student experience at Cambridge is shaped by small businesses.

Independent shops contribute hugely to Cambridge culture (Image Credit: CambridgeBid through Cambridge BID)

What do students prioritise on their shopping trips?

There are obvious hurdles that stop students from shopping local, with 50 per cent understandably saying that price was their number one priority when shopping. In Cambridge especially, the demographic most catered for is the older, wealthier generation living in Cambridge permanently. However, Anne notes that Cambridge’s student population is a spending force 23,000 strong, meaning students being forced home by the pandemic has: “Made a difference to local businesses.”

Even with student budgets, 35 per cent of those asked said that quality was their most important influence when spending money, meaning local artisan shops still see support in the student body. Even for those who shop primarily in chains. Ian tells us that, “all shops, bars, restaurants, hotels and cafes, etc… employ local people, pay local rents to local landlords, often colleges, who in turn hire local staff members.” Therefore, though shopping local and shopping indie can be two different things, both can help support the Cambridge economy.

Chain stores can dominate space in Cambridge (Image Credit: Geograph via Creative Commons licence)

How can we (students) help?

We’ve seen what the pandemic has done to local icons, with the recent closures of Cindies and Fez showing how even supporting chain companies can’t guarantee success in the Cambridge high street. When independent shops contribute to so much of what the Cambridge experience is, it’s essential to support them as much as our circumstances allow.

So what can students do to help local businesses? Anne says the best way is the smallest change. “Walk past costa – they don’t need your money. Go and spend it at an independent shop.” She points out that price differences aren’t always that vast: “A cappuccino at Fitzbillies is around 35p more expensive than at costa. She encourages students to “explore the place where you live” because “you forget to appreciate what’s on your doorstep.”

Other ways to help support local businesses include leaving reviews online and interacting with independent businesses to help small businesses expand their reach. 

Anne told us that local businesses: “Feel optimistic” about their future student support. After all, with so many of us having seen our Cambridge experience cut short by COVID, you can’t put a price on feeling like a part of the local community here.

This article was made possible with the help of IndieCambridge and CambridgeBid, where you can find a list of local independent shops in Cambridge and other ways to support our community!

Feature Image credit: Katie Thacker and Eli Mehdi

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