New Study Reveals Consumer Preferences at the Coffee Station

Photograph courtesy of Rich Products

Convenience-store foot traffic has been challenged in recent months due to COVID-19. Many consumers feel uncertain and cautious, so a special treat can provide a boost. C-stores can attract customers and drive sales by becoming a destination for indulgent, customizable beverages.

In June, Rich Products conducted a week-long “Talking Toppings” online community study to explore the impact COVID-19 has had on consumers’ perceptions, preferences and purchase behaviors around customized beverages in c-stores.

The research yielded tactics c-stores can implement to create a vibrant self-serve coffee program to attract customers and re-invigorate sales.

Coffee shifts from functional to emotional

Traditionally, coffee satisfied a functional need. It served as a mid-morning pick-me-up or a remedy to beat the afternoon slump. However, during COVID-19, more people are working from home and brewing their coffee there rather than driving to grab a cup of coffee at their local c-store.  

To compete, c-stores must shift consumers’ view on coffee from functional to emotional. Anyone can brew a cup of joe at home. That’s why c-stores should create a hot beverage station, with multiple topping options, that enables consumers to craft custom drinks. Beverages crowned with toppings can be promoted as a special reward to help one get through the day and feel grounded.

Consumers associate certain flavors and toppings with special memories, like cozy hot chocolate shared by the fire, pumpkin spice lattes to herald fall and other familiar beverages and flavors that provide calm when the world feels uncertain. 

Mood motivates toppings

Whipped topping is king when it comes to indulgent beverages. Coffee connoisseurs also add flavored syrups, drizzles, cookie crumbs, sprinkles and candies.

Topping choice depends on one’s mood and time of day, and there’s a wide range: 

  • Morning hit: It’s all about fueling up with caffeine or protein to start the day, so most opt for minimal toppings on a cappuccino, latte, cold brew, or matcha.
  • Social moments: Consumers create unique “Instagrammable” beverages with maximum toppings for maximum visual impact, including syrups, cookies and sprinkles.
  • Afternoon boost: These coffee drinkers seek a mid-day treat to replace lost energy to power through the rest of the day. They add excitement with dashes of flavor and drizzles.
  • Slowing down: Calming moments call for unwinding, sipping and savoring, with ingredients such as lavender and honey that calm and restore.
  • Occasional treat: Tough days call for special rewards. This pick-me-up could be a nostalgic topped beverage, often with extras on top for added emotional benefits.


Cleanliness is key

Of course, safety and cleanliness are top of mind with all consumers. Study participants rated hygiene as the most important factor when deciding where to purchase a topped beverage. Visibly seeing staff cleaning self-service stations ranked as a priority, narrowly followed by the availability of sanitizer stations. 

While getting the word out about a specialty beverage program is central to success, c-stores should also see this as an opportunity to reassure consumers. Utilize all marketing tools to communicate with customers, from a website and social media to signage at the pump and inside the store.

To learn more about the Talking Toppings Study, contact a Rich’s sales representative or visit

This post is sponsored by Rich Products


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