I went into this survey to test a hypothesis: the industry buys coffee in a different way than its consumers. No one would be particularly shocked by this, but I wanted to just scratch the surface on this and then think a little about the particular implications.
In total the survey received about 1,200 responses. The data was mostly pretty clean, but did vary a little bit in its accuracy or use.
A pretty good split between consumer and industry, which made me very happy. 1
Let’s dig into the interesting stuff: the purchasing habits of coffee professionals:
Unsurprisingly, lots of coffee people don’t pay for their coffee, but a surprising number do. (Remember: this survey is for the last bag people bought, not every bag bought). I’d speculate that coffee people spend substantially less on coffee than consumers. Many coffee people never really spend money on coffee and are often in the business of selling it. For me, this is a profound point of disconnection. Coffee is increasingly expensive, but I don’t think its price is truly understood or considered from a consumer perspective by many in the industry. I would include myself in this. I pay for cups of coffee everywhere I go (even when it seems to cause issues…) but I don’t buy that many bags a year, and when I do they’re notably expensive.
Now is a good time to go and watch this talk by Stephen Morrissey at Colab. It is very good, and very relevant.
I converted all the sizes to grams, and compared the two. Consumers bought, on average, a slightly bigger bag of coffee (340g compared to 315g). You can see the distribution of sizes as a percentage of users here:
250g bags are by far the most popular sizes, though consumers have a small preference towards slightly larger bags (350g up to 500g in particular). The industry likes the sub 227g size more – which makes sense. One might speculate that we want to try lots of different coffees. One important learning: a consumer may be more likely to spend more time with a particular bag of coffee than an industry person. Variety may not be as important to them as to the industry, and the practicality of acquiring more coffee is different. If you grab something from your work (cafe or roastery) before heading home, there’s no friction here. Ordering online or travelling to purchase (more on this below) is much more work.
What are we drinking?
I was interested to see if what consumer and industry were consuming were matching – and therefore an expression of what was available. Here’s a comparison:
It is a tough time of year to be asking this question. Some people may have some early new-crop Centrals, while many parts of the world won’t. Surprising to me was the dominance of Ethiopian coffees amongst consumers (with comparatively little interest in Panamanian coffee – if you’re thinking about taste profiles). It is hard to reach too much into this, but a part of me really, really wants to!
Why Did You Buy That Bag?
I’ve already speculated that the industry buys coffee in a different way to the consumer, so I wanted to ask this question to see if I could understand how. In the survey you could tick multiple boxes here (hence percentages not adding up).
For the industry:
40.5% Had tasted the coffee already
28.1% Chose based on the country of origin
23.7% Chose based on taste descriptors
3.5% Based their decision on price
38.1% Chose based on taste descriptors
37.8% Chose based on the country of origin
26.7% Had tasted the coffee already
10.2% Based on price
Unsurprisingly, the industry is trying before it buys and the taste is the biggest decider by a significant margin. Consumers are using information many of us don’t: taste descriptors. If I was to be snarky I’d say the coffee industry writes taste descriptors in a style and language best understood by itself. However, we don’t really use them (and often don’t really trust them). Consumers are using them, so it is probably worth considering if what we’re communicating is genuinely helpful in their decision making. I have my theories here, but they need testing a little. I don’t think we’re nailing it. This data could also suggest that sampling is perhaps something we ought to be doing more (though you could reasonably infer a completely different outcome).
Where do consumers buy their coffee?
For all the talk of Amazon destroying retail, for all the effort people put into their online store fronts, advertising spends and social media – I expected a different outcome here:
I expect the trend to be moving coffee sales online, but it would suggest that if you’re a cafe and you are not currently retailing bags of coffee as part of your offering then you’re missing out on some sales. Combine this with the fact that tasting the coffee beforehand not being the biggest factor, but bricks and mortar being the dominant space for sales is a bit of a head scratcher – you may have your own theories, and I’d love to hear them!
Conclusion: I think we need to spend more time being customers, I see no downside in increased empathy and understanding and seeing if it changes how we value the coffee we sell. I think there’s a problem in the disconnect, that means we are performing (as an industry) well below our potential. Empathy and understanding are a route to improving what we do.
- I’m also a little surprised at the number of non-industry people reading this blog, an audience I’m not properly serving. ↩︎