Strong Coffee-Bar First Impressions

Kevin Higar, Author, Foodservice Marketing Consultant

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As I sit down to write this column, kids are getting ready to begin another school year. My mother, an avid mall walker, can’t wait for these youngsters to get back in the classroom and out from underneath her feet. I remind her that back in the ’60s, when I was a child, my perfect manners probably created the unrealistic expectations she now has for all kids. She typically laughs and instinctively grabs a couple of aspirin.

Moving beyond my mom’s strange behavior, ask any parent what one of the most important parts of those first few days back in the learning environment is and they will say how the teacher views their kids. First impressions are critical. Within the c-store environment, this mantra is no less important and, if applied correctly, can produce real benefits for coffee-bar programs. 

A late 2011 study by the Pew Research Center revealed that more than half of all adults use the Internet to get information about restaurants, bars and clubs. Not surprisingly, 65% of 18- to 29-year-olds use websites as a source, but even 51% of those over 65 employ this tactic.
These statistics got me thinking. C-stores have a real opportunity to shape consumers’ lifestyle integration perceptions before an on-site visit ever occurs. Given the power a website and other forms of social media can have, what messages are c-stores communicating to their current and potential customer base? Considering we are moving into cooler months, can these communications be applied specifically to coffee-bar programs? It seemed an analysis was in order.

Seeking Wisdom

I examined the website and Facebook coffee-bar messages of approximately 50 leading c-store brands. What strategies do they employ? How do they try to create competitive differentiation? It’s not possible to share all of the results here, but there is one nugget I’d like to discuss.

While a majority of the c-stores in my study used their website and social media forums to communicate coffee-bar flavor and customization options, far fewer offered up what everyday customers enjoy (peer personalization recommendations). Funny thing about the intersection of people and flavor combinations: While surveys consistently show a majority of consumers are game for trying new tastes, these same individuals don’t want to commit their precious hot-beverage indulgences to the great unknown. Many prefer trekking through unchartered culinary territories in the company of others. Enter the wisdom of the crowds.

It’s OK to Share

As I travel around the country visiting restaurants of all types, I’m seeing more and more of this strategy. Concepts incorporating customization and unique flavor combinations as part of their core DNA are asking people to share their favorite unique ingredient and flavor combinations via social media.

4food, a better-burger concept in New York, encourages its customers to not only create their own burgers, but also submit the final product online. Go check it out. Right there on the website you’ll find a section titled “Buildboard Top Sellers.” These top trending burger creations are a true representation of wisdom of the crowds. If a customer doesn’t know what to order or is feeling a little adventurous, he or she need look no further. The cool thing is this social media first impression extends into the location. When I visited the restaurant, a digital board right above the front counter also prominently displayed the top trending burgers.

So why can’t this strategy be applied to your coffee-bar program? Some of your cutting-edge competitors already are doing this. Swing by QuickChek’s website. It has an area called Make Your Own Coffee Concoction. Customers can post their favorite hot coffee flavor and ingredient combos and check out (and perhaps then try) what others have created.

Next time you gaze out over the endless flavor combinations possible within your coffee-bar program, don’t let too many choices create too little customer adventurism. Tempt their first impressions with social media suggestions, then follow up with similar info in the store, positioning it as either customer favorites or perhaps staff recommendations.

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