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What Can Independent Coffee Shops Do Better? Insights from Assembly Coffee

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In addition to penning a thoughtful counterpoint to James Hoffmann’s recent exploration on the financial efficacy and theoretical place of pastries in coffee shops, the team at the London-based roastery Assembly Coffee has shared with its peers in the independent coffee world some fascinating insights into consumer preferences.

To maximize participation among coffee professionals and non-professionals alike, Assembly surveyed guests at this past April’s London Coffee Festival and subsequent events, providing brewed coffees of various strengths that were evaluated in anonymously submitted forms.

The overarching goal of the survey was to explore why, despite the tremendous growth of the UK independent coffee sector in recent years, a disproportionate number of coffee consumers still favor chains. Assembly’s Michael Cleland told Daily Coffee News that the more specific questions driving this survey were, “We are dead set on specific brew concentrations within coffee but do these correspond with the preferences of coffee consumers?” and, “If not, is this potentially a tool to encourage the engagement of coffee consumers?”

Just over 400 people responded to the survey, with 81 percent having previously worked professionally in coffee.

One of the most striking results demonstrating differences in coffee preferences between professionals and non-professionals was related to brew strength. Respondents were given three black coffees of various brew strengths as defined by a percentage (A: 10 percent; B: 5 percent; and C: 1.5 percent), and asked to rank all three in order of preference. 59.1 percent of people who had previously worked in coffee favored the 5 percent brew, with 31.8 percent favoring the 10 percent brew. Among non-professionals, the number favoring the 5 percent brew spiked to above 70 percent.

“Results indicated that brew strength could certainly influence consumers’ engagement in independent coffee,” the company said in a published analysis of the survey. “A staggering 70 percent of coffee consumers preferred drinks of 5 percent concentration which is at odds to brew strengths closer to 10 percent as an independent industry standard.”

Other survey question topics included drink orders in cafés versus coffee drinks made at home, espresso preferences, home-brewing frequency and factors that prevent return patronage to an independent coffee shop. Of the most interesting insights, another was related to what informs the decision to buy a given coffee, with respondents asked to choose between taste, trade model, convenience or wait time. Here’s how they replied:

  • Taste 37.3%
  • Ethically traded 28.2%
  • Convenient location 21%
  • Wait time 13.5%

While taste took the top spot, Assembly argues that among these factors, perhaps the biggest opportunity for differentiation among independent coffee purveyors is in their marketing and communication efforts. Citing its own theories, Assembly suggested a value proposition based on taste alone is problematic due to its subjective nature combined with a complex learning curve.

Acknowledging the relatively small sample size, the Assembly team is encouraging others in coffee to pick up the torch and help lead more research into consumer trends, particularly as they relate to differentiation and loyalty among independent shops.

See all the insights here.



José del Bosque

Hi! I don’t know if it will make an addition to the subject, but taking the first paragraph in analysis, here’s my comment based on our experience in these 4+ years we have been working along a bakery:

1. Pastries are definitely a plus, and a coffee shop that wants traffic needs to have them in display. Not only that, they must be fresh, made on the day, and if possible, in situ. That at least is what has given us the advantage over other coffee shops in our city, where climate is very high and coffee alone is not attractive enough.

2. Thanks to God, we don’t make pastries. We focus on coffee. Sourcing, roasting, brewing coffee. In 2012 we joined forces with a local bakery and placed ourselves under the same roof. We decided they would be in charge of pastries and bread, while we would be in charge of coffee and other beverages. Although we see no profit in selling pastries, we believe they make an excellent companion to our coffee, and since every company focus on its expertise, the results are an excellent coffee along an excellent array of great pastries and bread. That is what has made us unique, not only here in Monterrey, but also in Mexico, and I venture to say, worldwide.

So, my advice to those coffee shops who are struggling with the idea of evicting pastries out of your counters, is to partner with a local bakery and join forces. Is not easy to share spaces, concepts and ways of working, but if you can get to trust each other and look for the better good of both companies you can find a way through. Believe me, the results will be amazing.

If you want to explore more, check Café La Nacional and BreAd Panaderos Artesanales on the web.


Bob Sanders

I suspect that the taste, brew strength, etc are secondary factors to why that particular coffee shop is chosen over another. I suspect the answer lies in the hidden truth that people don’t go about their shopping or purchasing by conforming to particular segments, rather they take life as it comes.

This is the classic “Hire a Milkshake”, where Clayton Christensen shares the story of a fast-food restaurant chain that wanted to improve its milkshake sales. The company started by segmenting its market both by product (milkshakes) and by demographics (a marketer’s profile of a typical milkshake drinker). Next, the marketing department asked people who fit the demographic to list the characteristics of an ideal milkshake (thick, thin, chunky, smooth, fruity, chocolaty, etc.). The would-be customers answered as honestly as they could, and the company responded to the feedback. But alas, milkshake sales did not improve.

The company then enlisted the help of one of Christensen’s fellow researchers, who approached the situation by trying to deduce the “job” that customers were “hiring” a milkshake to do. First, he spent a full day in one of the chain’s restaurants, carefully documenting who was buying milkshakes, when they bought them, and whether they drank them on the premises. He discovered that 40 percent of the milkshakes were purchased first thing in the morning, by commuters who ordered them to go.

The next morning, he returned to the restaurant and interviewed customers who left with milkshake in hand, asking them what job they had hired the milkshake to do. “Most of them, it turned out, bought [the milkshake] to do a similar job,” he writes. “They faced a long, boring commute and needed something to keep that extra hand busy and to make the commute more interesting. They weren’t yet hungry, but knew that they’d be hungry by 10 a.m.; they wanted to consume something now that would stave off hunger until noon. And they faced constraints: They were in a hurry, they were wearing work clothes, and they had (at most) one free hand.”

The milkshake was hired in lieu of a bagel or doughnut because it was relatively tidy and appetite-quenching, and because trying to suck a thick liquid through a thin straw gave customers something to do with their boring commute. Understanding the job to be done, the company could then respond by creating a morning milkshake that was even thicker (to last through a long commute) and more interesting (with chunks of fruit) than its predecessor. The chain could also respond to a separate job that customers needed milkshakes to do: serve as a special treat for young children—without making the parents wait a half hour as the children tried to work the milkshake through a straw. In that case, a different, thinner milkshake was in order.

Amy Voss

Do you all roast your own or do you purchase in bulk? I’m really interested in opening my own shop but struggling on whose coffee to serve. I also am well aware of the costs and labor that go along with roasting your own beans. Any advice would be appreciated!

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