June 22, 2020

How to Meet The Needs of Today’s Coffee Shop Customer


Vegan, earth-conscious, experience-seeking, Instagram-shunning, pour-over-drinking, pour-over-avoiding, quality-orientated, convenience-orientated: the customer market is rapidly evolving and at times contradictory. Coffee shop owners who don’t adapt to their changing needs risk losing sales and customers. 

The market isn’t the only thing that’s changed. The world has too, and this will impact the behaviour and preferences of 2020’s coffee shop customer. Here’s what current events and trends mean for this group, what kind of hygiene measures they’ll expect in your coffee shop, and how everything from decals and dividers to Hands-Free Adapters for drinks systems can help you better cater to their wants and needs.

Lee este artículo en español Cómo Satisfacer Las Necesidades Actuales Del Cliente en tu Café

Milk-based drinks are popular among consumer

Credit: Jean Pierre Flores

The Average Coffee Shop Consumer

According to UK-based consumer intelligence firm Brandwatch, one of the biggest challenges for the food and beverage industry is staying up to date with customers’ wants and needs. They state, “The food and beverage industry is seemingly one of the most susceptible to changing trends, micro-trends, and local trends.”

It’s not all bad news for café owners, however: coffee shop usage has grown in recent years. In the US in 2019, the café industry was worth US $47.5 billion. Meanwhile, in the UK, the industry is seeing year-on-year growth and, in 2017, market research firm Mintel stated that the UK was seeing its “biggest period of growth since 2008”. While COVID-19 will no doubt affect 2020’s sales figures, many countries are starting to ease their lockdown restrictions, which could see the industry experiencing growth in the second half of the year.

Most coffee shop users are habitual: according to brand specialists Ceuta Group, 80% of visitors to British coffee shops do so at least weekly, while 16% go every day. Data from Square reveals that 5% of coffee shop customers in the US return to that same café that very same day. 

Numerous studies have also shown that Generation Z and millennials are more likely to visit coffee shops, while older generations prefer to make coffee at home. As for gender, it’s a roughly equal mix; some studies find a slight difference, but by and large, men and women are equally likely to visit a coffee shop.  

Once in the coffee shop, women tend to spend more money. According Research consultancy Allegra Strategies, men are more likely to visit during the morning rush and women in the afternoons. Women generally spend several hours, often multiple times a week, in a coffee shop, while men might visit daily. Women are also more likely to try a new drink or food item, whereas men tend to have favourite drinks that they order again and again. 

At the same time, the freelance and gig economy means that coffee shops are attracting more young professionals who either can’t afford or don’t want office space.

Depending on how severely the Coronavirus has impacted the area, some coffee shops might see fewer visitors for the foreseeable future, as many people have switched to ordering coffee online and staying away from public places. In addition, coffee shop visits will probably be shorter, and fewer people will seek it out as a working space until it’s been confirmed that the virus has stopped spreading.

While the drinking habits of coffee shop visitors might be different this year, the reasons why they seek out coffee shops will likely remain the same – with a few modifications. Let’s take a look at what today’s coffee shop customer cares about.

You might also like How Cold Brew Captured The Millennial Market

Credit. Neil Soque

Quality Is Important – But So Is Convenience

“The world we live in is fast-paced, with consumers becoming more and more focused on quality over quantity in many aspects of life,” says Dan Fellows, World Coffee in Good Spirits Champion 2018 and 2019.

In fact, according to the 2019 NCA National Coffee Trends report, over 60% of US consumers drank “gourmet” coffee in the last 24 hours. But quality isn’t enough to win you customers. Nor should you unquestioningly embrace specialty coffee servings such as the Chemex and V60 just because of their association with the third wave.

Pour over coffees have been in vogue for a while, thanks to global uptake in artisanal made-by-hand products and quality. Yet there is a small but growing backlash against manual brewing as consumers grow tired of the long wait and unpredictable quality. Many consumers will already have enjoyed coffee at home this way for months. Now that many are slowly returning to visiting coffee shops, they might prefer a speedier, more predictable brewing method, such as automation.

This doesn’t mean a return to filter coffees kept on hot plates all day: today’s customer is discerning. They want barista-designed recipes for coffees brewed with machine precision.

Simon Lewthwaite is Business Development Manager at Caravan Coffee Roasters, where they have been using an automated SP9 from Marco Beverage Systems. It allows them to dial in the pour over recipe, from the number of pulses to the volume and temperature of the water, before the brewer disperses the water. 

“Customers are feeling a little funny about not putting the human part into it, but for us, the automation can lead to a higher consistency,” he says. “If three people all order a hand brew, we use the SP9 three times and those three are much more likely to taste similar than three made by hand, or by three different staff members.”

Automated pourover machines provide consistency in quality

Credit: Marco Beverage Systems

Coffee shops should examine their processes to look for ways to improve efficiency while maintaining high standards. Olwyn Ledwidge is Events & Digital Marketing Coordinator at Marco Beverage Systems, a provider of boilers, fonts, and automated brewing systems. She tells me that some coffee shops are preparing syrups for cold drinks and lemonades ahead of time, and then adding sparkling water from a font such as the Marco FRIIA. This allows them to pay meticulous attention to quality when preparing the syrups yet also meet the customer’s need for quick service.

Patrick Greer, Cold Brew Operations Manager at Draft Coffee Solutions, says, “It’s no secret people are getting impatient with slow bars. I think shop owners would be wise to listen to this demand for convenience and look for solutions to satisfy the grab-‘n’-go customer without sacrificing quality.” With social distancing limiting the number of people allowed into coffee shops at a certain time, more efficient processes will also ensure that queues are kept short and as many customers are served as possible.

Credit: La Marzocco Korea

Consumers Seek Experiences as Well as Products

Coffee is rarely just about the caffeine: people go to coffee shops to spend time with friends, enjoy the tranquillity of the third space, or simply give themselves an indulgent break. Yet cafés should be wary of becoming complacent. Customer expectations are growing, fuelled in part by Instagram, foodie blogs, and the growing tendency for dishes and locations to be designed for photos. Just because your coffee shop might see less foot traffic than normal doesn’t mean you should neglect this, as it will still feature in your branding and social media postings.

Whether it’s super-saturated monochrome colours designed for Instagram, plant-filled patios, or cosy and low-lit interiors that create a sense of intimacy, what works best for your brand will depend on your goals, marketing, and customers. But no matter what style you choose, it’s important to do it well and communicate it consistently. 

You’ll also need to consider how your customers order and receive coffee while managing their risk of contracting COVID-19. It’s generally accepted that when in public, people should wear masks and keep a distance of several feet from the next person. This means creating a space in your coffee shop that enforces social distancing. You can maintain this in-store by adding decals to the floor to help customers know where to stand when queuing, or use retractable barriers to keep these queues in order. You can also assure them that your space (and staff members) are safe by implementing precautionary measures behind the bar – such as adding plexiglass barriers to your counters and pay stations to provide a barrier between customers and staff. 

Keeping both customers and staff members from unnecessarily touching surfaces and equipment is another measure worth implementing, as it drastically reduces transmissions from occurring. This doesn’t mean that you’ll need to outfit your store with all new equipment. You can adapt your existing workspace by integrating hands free systems that eliminate touchpoints without compromising your need to provide a speedy service. For example, your coffee shop’s water and coffee systems will be used on a daily basis, and you can make them touch-free by adding a Marco Hands-Free Adapter to your coffee urns and water boilers.

Open-plan coffee bars elevate the consumer experience

Credit: La Marzocco Korea

Next, consider your menu. Is it diverse enough for the customer looking for something new? While you don’t want to overwhelm yourself with offerings, increasing your costs but not necessarily your incomings, you also don’t want to drive customers away with a stale or restrictive menu.

If you’re looking for easy ways to diversify without giving your baristas a headache, try a seasonal menu. This will mean that even your long-term customers can try something new, while you don’t have to offer too many options on a daily basis. Similarly, a smoothie or soup of the day can allow you to offer one-day-only, unique items, with the added bonus that you can use up fresh ingredients that might otherwise be reaching their best-before date.

How are your offerings presented? If you’re serving tea, are you telling the customer how long to let it brew for? Is this information written on the menu or an information card? Or are you providing an egg timer? And do the cups, teapots, and egg timers match?

If you serve RTD beverages, does the packaging suit your brand and your coffee shop? With the customer reducing their in-store visits, it would be a great opportunity to offer them unique ways to enjoy their favourite coffees at home – for example through canned cold brew, or ground coffee.

Credit: Matt Lee

Customers Want “Healthy-But-Delicious” Options

It’s not that a customer won’t order a cake and hot chocolate as an indulgent treat. They will. However, they also want a wide variety of healthy options – and we’re not just talking about a wilting tomato salad. Consumers look for fun, nutritious options that they can enjoy eating every bit as much as that toffee fudge cake.

According to L.E.K.’s 2018 consumer food and beverage survey of approximately 1,600 consumers, 93% of us want to eat healthy some of the time and 63% try to eat healthy most or all of the time. And in 2016, “functional foods” – foods with health benefits – were one of five trends announced by Google in a report based on their search data.

What’s more, consumers are willing to invest financially in looking after their bodies. Nielsen’s 2015 Global Health & Wellness Survey, based on a poll of over 30,000 people from Generation Z through to baby boomers, suggests that 88% will pay more for healthier options. 

Make sure your food menu has a range of healthy and healthy-ish options, from couscous salads through to vegetable quiches. But don’t just consider these products’ nutritional value and calorie counts. Ask yourself: will this be tasty? Will it look appetising? Will the customer feel like they have a choice?

Examine your drinks menu, too. If a customer doesn’t want coffee, are they stuck with just a breakfast tea or a sugary hot chocolate? Or do you also have interesting options for them?

Greer tells me that the trend towards healthy living has “paved the way for things like kombucha, seltzer, teas, and alternative milk,” while Ledwidge adds that even beers and wine are less popular. “Globally, we have seen a decrease in alcohol consumption and a rise in low- or no-ABV alternatives,” she says.  

While creating new menu items can sound daunting, coffee shops should treat it as an opportunity. Drinks such as mint tea, elderflower pressé, and still lemonade can offer good profit margins, as well as being marketed as healthy and delicious to the customer.

Credit: Ana Valencia

Caffeine Goes Out of Fashion

As customers grow more health-conscious, cutting down on caffeine has also become a trend – and one that is particularly important for coffee shops.

According to National Coffee Association (NCA) data, the growth of decaf coffee sales has been outpacing that of regular coffee for a while now. And between 2017 and 2019, sales of instant decaf were up 20%, while one coffee shop reported that their decaf sales had tripled in this period.

This isn’t just being pushed by a small but fanatical group of consumers. According to Mintel, over a million British coffee-drinkers switched to decaf in 2018 alone. In the US, over 40% of coffee-drinkers opt for decaf at least sometimes, with younger generations the keenest to avoid a caffeine buzz. And with over two-thirds of consumers believing it’s important to limit their coffee consumption (according to the NCA), it’s not surprising that the number of decaf-drinkers keeps rising.

But is your café catering to this sector? Greer says, “Non-caffeine drinkers have it rough in most cafés. How many times can a person order peppermint tea? Or rooibos?”

He recommends creating a more interesting caffeine-free menu. “Be creative. There are thousands of edible plants on the market, so experiment with tisane blends or mixing them with dairy/steamed milk. Non-coffee lattes can be delicious, and you already have the steam wand.”

Decaf-drinkers aren’t exempt from the other trends, so make sure the beverages are delicious, varied, and healthy. Keep quality high, and remember that good-quality decaf coffee exists – it’s just a little more expensive due to the extra processing. Consider adding a decaf symbol next to certain drinks, just as you would for allergens and vegan products.

Read more in Millennials Turn to Decaf: What Does This Mean For Café Owners?

Barista speaking to a customer

Credit: Nicole Motteux

Sustainability Is in The Spotlight

In recent years, we’ve seen school strikes, disposable cup fees, and a backlash against plastic packaging. Sustainability was on everyone’s lips in 2019, and 2020 is no exception.

In a survey of over 600 US American chefs conducted by the National Restaurant Association in November-December 2019, they found 2020’s biggest trend – beating plant-based proteins, made-from-scratch, and creativity with catering – is widely predicted to be eco-friendly packaging.

“Cutting down on plastic and focusing on equitable, sustainable, and/or local supply chains are all as important to coffee shops these days as to their customers,” Ledwidge says. “Consumers today are more engaged, active and aware.”

Making soft and cold drinks in-house rather than providing them in plastic bottles reduces packaging waste as well as catering to those looking for “scratch-made” food and drink. Similarly, serving salads in cardboard boxes instead of plastic bowls will help demonstrate sustainable credentials.This is also important when operating an online store and taking orders, as some customers might get their first introduction to your coffee shop this way.

It’s not just about packaging, though. Ledwidge suggests “discount[ing] coffee for customers using a KeepCup, providing hydration stations for free water refills, and not charging a premium for alternative milk”. Energy-efficient machines are also a great way to improve sustainability.

Pay attention to your supply chain, too. In 2018, Nielsen found that sales of “sustainable coffee” outgrew overall coffee sales by 5% in volume, while coffee marketed as environmentally sustainable saw a 52% growth, despite making up just 0.4% of the coffee on the market. According to their report, “these environmental claims range from those related to recyclable packaging and less plastic waste, to ethical sourcing and eco-friendly labeling”. 

From the Cheddar cheese in the sandwiches to the Colombian beans in the hopper, coffee shops should advertise their supply chains and demonstrate why they are sustainable, local, and ethical.

Lewthwaite tells me that at Caravan Coffee Roasters, “[Sustainability issues] are all very much at the front of customers’ minds. We believe our customers come to Caravan for coffee because they enjoy a) the taste and b) the ethos behind the sourcing. 

“As the fight on plastic has become more real, or customers understand how carbon footprint works in the industry, we have had to constantly update the amount of information we provide. We’re not changing our method to fit into that, but just how we deliver that information, as we’ve had a transparent approach to sourcing and relationships with farmers for a long time now.”

Credit: Neil Soque

Dairy-Free & Vegan Options Are Expected

With The Economist declaring 2019 the year of the vegan, plant-based lifestyles have officially gone from being a fringe movement to part of the mainstream. Gone are the days when vegan and vegetarian alternatives were considered optional: today, they are not just expected but also held to high standards.

“A few years ago, we never dreamed of carrying alternative dairy products, and now we have to,” Greer says. “Even those without dietary restrictions are starting to switch to vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free products.”

The Food Industry Association declared flexitarianism, or part-time vegetarianism and veganism, to be “increasingly prevalent” in October 2019. According to their 2019 Power of Meat report, women and members of Generation Z are most likely to be flexitarians – the same groups most likely to spend more money in coffee shops. 

Greer recommends paying close attention to the food menu, especially pastries. “It is challenging to make vegan things taste good, but you will gain very loyal customers if you succeed.”

Alternative milks pose less of a challenge for coffee shops, with many barista versions on the market. “We’re seeing a rapid rise in the request of oat milk for coffees, with soy and almond both on the decline,” Lewthwaite says. 

Oat milk’s popularity is generally driven by its taste, environmentally friendly credentials compared to nut milks, and lack of allergens. However, you may also wish to play it safe and keep a couple of options in stock.

Read more in A Coffee Shop Favourite: Why Is Oat Milk so Popular?

Credit: Patrick Greer

2020 has brought with many expected changes, and coffee shops have to adapt. This is not the moment to run your grandmother’s coffee shop (although the customer might like a made-from-scratch, vegan version of her carrot cake). You need to appeal to a customer base which is primarily convenience-loving, health-conscious, and quality-orientated. They care about how their products were made, where they came from, and what the environmental cost is. And they also care about their personal safety and responsibility as they’re living in a world dealing with a pandemic. 

The good news is that knowing your target market is the first key to success. Serving food and drinks designed with them in mind will allow you to attract loyal customers and even increase your profit margins per item.

So, take a look at your shop design and menu. Ask yourself if your supply chains match the quality of your products. And start creating winning food and beverage items.

Enjoyed this? Read How to Create a Coffee Shop Food Menu That Minimises Waste

Written by Tanya Newton. Interviews conducted by Gisselle Guerra. Featured photo: Nicole Motteux

Please note: This article has been sponsored by Marco Beverage Systems.

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