April 21, 2021

“A drive for better quality”: How is supermarket coffee changing?


Millions of people around the world buy coffee in supermarkets every single day, whether it’s instant, pre ground, whole bean, or capsule. Despite this, among the specialty coffee community there are negative preconceptions about supermarket coffee and its quality.

However, things are changing. A growing consumer focus on quality, sustainability, and ethical sourcing practices has driven changes in this market segments, and supermarkets are now offering a broader range of coffees than ever before.

To learn more about supermarket coffee, how quality is changing, and why smaller roasters can find it difficult to penetrate this massive market, we spoke with Martin Mayorga from Mayorga Organics and John Steel from Café Direct. Read on to find out what they told us.

You might also like our article on redefining the meaning of “specialty coffee”.

Changes in quality

Research by Statista shows that 67% of US consumers claim they “usually buy coffee at the supermarket”. It is a huge market, but one that has not historically been renowned for its quality. However, improving this has been on the agenda for longer than consumers might think.

John Steel is the CEO at Café Direct, a roaster that sells coffee in major UK supermarkets across the country. Café Direct is also a certified B Corp that invests 50% of all its profits into a UK charity that works with coffee farmers around the world.

John tells me that despite these preconceptions, Café Direct has been supplying high quality coffee in supermarkets for decades. “For nearly 30 years, we have very much pioneered specialty coffee in supermarkets,” he explains.

John says that “since the beginning”, Café Direct has sourced beans scoring 82 points or above on a quality scale, which are therefore technically specialty-grade (despite issues with the definition of the word “specialty”).

“I think genuinely there is a drive for better quality in private label coffee and supermarket [brands],” he says. “Some of them have started moving into offering single origins.”

According to the CBI, supermarket coffee in the UK is generally low-end or mid-range, but “not all supermarket brands are considered low-quality”.

In addition, private label goods (branded products sold through supermarkets, such as Café Direct) make up an average of 47% of all products in British supermarkets, and as John says, private label coffee quality is increasing.

As for where you can find better coffee, supermarkets that offer premium products of better quality will naturally offer a wider range of higher quality beans. John also notes that the customer profile for each supermarket will naturally inform the coffee they stock. 

“The blender business is often the brand owner’s, but some supermarkets such as Waitrose in the UK offer a very good range of single origin coffees,” John says. “This helps them to [indicate] quality from provenance and location.  

“There are different segments of the market for great blended coffee and that does a really good job,” he adds. “However, some people want that provenance, that kind of mystique [associated with single origins].”

Lighter roasts in supermarkets

While light roasts are popular among specialty coffee consumers who prefer a more unique or complex flavour, dark roasts are broadly popular among “classic” coffee drinkers, especially those who add milk and sugar.

This group of traditional coffee drinker is far more likely to buy coffee in supermarkets, compared to specialty consumers who will often buy direct from roasters. 

So, as consumers buying coffee in supermarkets broadly have a more traditional palate for coffee, darker roasts remain more popular by a long distance.

However, John notes that lighter roasts are starting to appear on the shelves. 

“We have certainly lightened our roast profile over time,” he says. “We haven’t exactly gone out one day and just changed it completely, but we’ve been very conscious of lighter roasts for at least 10 years.

“Consumers want different things from their coffee. It’s quite a personal thing to them.”

Martin Mayorga is the Founder and CEO of Mayorga Organics. He says that he has also seen light roasts becoming more prevalent in supermarkets, but also notes that it’s important not to assume this marks a huge change in consumer behaviour.

“I’ve seen more light roasts,” he tells me. “This might not necessarily be because of demand, however. Smaller roasters can sometimes be naive when trying to enter a market.” 

Small fish in bigger ponds?

So, lighter roasts and single origins are starting to appear in supermarkets. In theory, this should have paved the way for smaller, specialist roasters to enter the market. So why aren’t there more on supermarket shelves?

One key issue is freshness. Shelf life is an area of focus for supermarkets. A higher shelf life is desirable as a product travels along a supply chain before sitting among competitors on a shelf for weeks, if not months.

And while freshly roasted coffee is still not commonplace in major supermarket chains, there are some examples where supermarkets have been able to shorten the supply chain and be more efficient with the coffee they sell.

He says: “I sell to a grocery chain that has 21 locations. I got so tired of seeing companies that I knew weren’t direct sourcing, weren’t certified organic. 

“I convinced this chain to let me put a 25lb capacity San Franciscan Roaster in the main store, and helped train staff to roast all their coffee themselves. I provide them all of their green coffee. 

“Their sales went up fivefold. They went from selling other brands for US $12.99 to having a streamlined price of US $8.99 to the consumer, that they roast themselves, and buy from our co-ops and small farms directly.”

Ultimately, the smaller we make the radius for the supply of better-quality coffee, the easier it is to maintain a steady stock of freshly roasted beans.

Martin tells me that in the US, Whole Foods supermarkets have started to work with smaller roasters on a regional basis. “They have a big regional, local support programme which is what allows you to go into the store and stock,” he says.

“I’ve been building a brand for 23 years and I think Whole Foods is a very missed opportunity for a lot of small roasters. I think a lot have overpriced themselves trying to create a story. I think they make a mistake by often going in and being a little bit too greedy with their pricing.”

This is another issue. Martin means that many smaller roasters build their brand around the “romance” or the narrative behind the beans they source. Because of this, there is generally a subsequent demand for a premium price. 

If roasters aren’t flexible with their profit margin, supermarkets won’t see their beans as a worthwhile investment. In turn, they’ll struggle to break into a market which would arguably make up for the lower profit margin thanks to the sheer volume of potential sales.

“I think the biggest misconception of the specialty coffee movement is that the average consumer has the time and energy to think about coffee the way that we do,” Martin adds. “I think a lot of people see coffee as a nice thing they enjoy, and they want it to be well sourced but they can’t really take it beyond that because they have jobs and responsibilities.”

“What we’re seeing now is a realisation by the smaller roasters that you can’t just sell people what you like; you have to sell the market what the market wants.”

Brand identity & marketing on the shelf

The last key change is branding. While better branding and higher quality don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand, there is an increasing consumer focus on visually striking packaging which is often deemed more “memorable”.

This has been reflected in changes in packaging and branding for many private label coffee products over the past few years. Even supermarket brands differentiate their higher-quality products or range of different coffees by varying packaging colours and fonts.

John tells me that unique product branding has been key for Café Direct over the years. “You’ve got to present a gorgeous, well differentiated but very motivating brand, and also make sure you’ve got meaning as part of that.

“It’s not an easy thing to navigate. We relaunched our brand in 2017; it’s now very premium, positive, and dynamic… we make it very easy to navigate the flavour or the origin, for instance.”

It’s important for brands sold in supermarkets to be approachable, too. Customers at larger retailers will naturally be less educated about coffee. By being down-to-earth and “jargon-free”, you can make your coffee more appealing to a wider audience.

“Brand owners [add too much information] because they want to tell their story and they want to get excited about it,” John adds. “This happens in the coffee sector in particular because there’s such wonderful richness in the product quality. 

“You want to tell the story of the farmer and want to get across the difference you’re making. But we’re trying to distil that down and cut through… [it’s important that] people can still hear you.”

Sustainability is also a key focus for product marketing. Research by NYU Stern in 2019 showed that sustainable products represented 50% of all growth in consumer packaged goods from 2013 to 2018, despite comprising only 16.6% of the market.

However, while certifications and sustainability are popular in branding and can drive consumer behaviour, Martin says that it’s important not to take it too far.

“It’s so important to realise that it’s become kind of a game about who can be the most sustainable,” he says. “This race is the biggest issue we have in our industry today.

“Even if consumers think they’re making an impact, producers are probably worse off than they were five years ago. It’s gone too far.”

The supermarket coffee segment is undoubtedly an intriguing market. It is by no means immune to the changes that affect the rest of the coffee sector, but it remains difficult for smaller brands to break in and bring better coffee to more people.

While quality seems to have a way to go, it is certainly increasing. There are more single origins and better blends on shelves than ever before, whether under supermarket or private label brands. 

Despite these changes, however, it remains important for brands across the coffee sector to keep the more traditional tastes of a massive base of coffee consumers in mind. The supermarket audience is fundamentally different to the specialty coffee drinker. Understanding this will be key for any coffee company that wants to break into this huge market.

You might also like our article on dark roast’s place in the coffee sector.

Perfect Daily Grind

Photo credits: Café Direct

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