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The key to building customer loyalty with your coffee program is to create a memorable cup for customers. "A memorable cup" is a term used to describe a cup of coffee that unexpectedly, through its aroma and flavor, captures your attention and exceeds your expectations. The power this cup has can change the course of your coffee program by having a direct and very positive impact on your coffee sales and customer base.
I personally have had only but a few of these memorable cup experiences; sadly they are few and far between. The first was over 25 years ago and I still frequent the establishment where I encountered that experience -- that's loyalty! I can count on one hand the places I have had a memorable cup experience, yet I could not even begin to guess how many bad experiences I have had along the way. The memorable cup experience is unique and drives a pursuit of seeking the next one. It is a quest that when conquered, leaves such a deep feeling of satisfaction that it sets the bar for subsequent experiences.
Because those experiences are few and far between, taking advantage of their power to capture market share is a sure bet that will undoubtedly build loyalty, sales and profits for your coffee category. However, the trick is figuring out how to create that experience for your guests and if you are banking on your current coffee program to do the work for you, don't be surprised when down the road you find you have wasted time and money.
There are three basic fundamentals for creating a memorable cup: atmosphere, product quality and service. All three must be present at the same time in order to maximize your efforts in creating memorable cup experiences for your customers. Each must work in unison and cohesively with the next if an operator hopes to build loyalty with today's experienced coffee drinkers.
Many convenience store operators have fallen prey to the trap set by suppliers who claim that their programs meet the three criteria. Although there are several great-looking and functional programs out there, the vast majority are missing the mark when it comes to quality. The majority of brands sold through c-stores are commercial brands rarely found in the specialty coffeehouses across America. These brands are geared more for institutional environments and do not meet the taste profile of the discerning pallets of today's informed coffee drinkers.
Over the past 15 years, consumers have been inundated with coffee knowledge, thanks largely to the national coffeehouse chains and their marketing expertise. This has led to dramatic changes in the coffee market. Consumers now understand that there is a major difference in taste between typical commercial-grade coffees vs. specialty or premium-grade coffees, and trending proves that.
Today, the specialty coffee market is growing at a rate nearly four times that of its commercial, lower-grade cousin. What is interesting is that most consumers do not even recognize the difference between the two categories by name, but rather by personal experience. They may not be able to tell you the difference between specialty vs. commercial coffee by looking at the packaging and labels, but they certainly can tell you by tasting them.
They have had a memorable cup experience somewhere along the line and it is easy for them to recognize imposters, such as those sold through most coffee programs at c-stores. If you want to create a memorable cup, you need to provide the right coffee. Explore all of your options and make sure you are providing the quality consumers are demanding.
Having a well-organized, attractive program and great specialty coffee will increase your chances of creating a memorable cup for your customers. However, without great service and attention to detail in the category, you are limiting your ability to create a consistent experience for customers.
Most of your coffee will be sold between the hours of 6 a.m. and 11 a.m., and it is my recommendation that you employ a staff member to manage the coffee bar and assist customers during that time. In today's economy, that can be a tough decision, especially when controlling cost of labor is such a major focus.
I challenge you to consider a few things before you completely discount this recommendation. First, the coffee category has a "halo effect" on other categories, specifically products such as fresh baked goods, fresh food to-go, pre-packaged goods, etc. Second, having a "barista" servicing the coffee bar and assisting customers during the morning hours is a great way to increase your overall service level and help drive sales in other categories. Finally, baristas make great salespeople because they proactively interact with your customers. They can be used to inform your customers of promotions and suggest other items to go with their coffee purchase.
Having a warm and friendly person at the coffee bar contributes to the overall experience a customer has and increases your chances of creating a memorable cup, leading to loyal customers who appreciate your great atmosphere, product quality and service. Additionally, you will likely notice an increase in category sales that outweighs the increased cost of labor.
All of these components working together and in harmony will create a memorable cup for your customers. I, like so many other coffee junkies, look for this experience on a daily basis and when we find it, you can be sure we will keep coming back for it, as well as tell our friends and families about it. I don't think there is a better demonstration of loyalty than that.
Burke Hodge is a coffee industry expert with nearly two decades of experience. He is the president of The Coffee Consultants, an industry-specific consulting firm that specializes in helping clients revitalize their current coffee programs to meet consumer demand. You can contact Hodge at [email protected].
Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.