Today’s customers want more from their coffee.
They expect it to be high quality, fresh. Hot and iced. They want to try new flavors; if they like it, they’ll grab the pods. Convenience retailers must know the trends and provide options.
Customers also want to feel good about where their coffee comes from and how it’s made. Is it sustainably sourced? Does it come from a local supplier? Leaning into these labels will draw today’s coffee connoisseurs.
New York-based Cliff’s Local Market offers Utica Coffee, a local brand, which Director of Foodservice Derek Thurston said is a “point of separation” for the c-store.
“You’ve got all the big boys in the marketplace, but we’re the closest local markets,” he said. “We’re a 19-store chain, and we offer local coffee; I think there’s support for that.”
At New Jersey-based QuickChek, quality and freshness are key, along with a commitment to customer service.
The c-store chain, with more than 160 locations in New Jersey, New York’s Hudson Valley and Long Island, appoints a “coffee host” at its stores: an employee who’s responsible for managing the coffee department, dedicated to making sure that coffee is brewed fresh, and the milks and creamers are stocked.
“Our employees really help make that difference for us,” said QuickChek Director of Food Services Chris Smyly.
Here are four more tips to take any coffee program from good to great:
Add New Flavors and LTOs
New brews and limited-time-offer (LTO) flavors can help to keep customers interested in a coffee program and engaged with the brand.
QuickChek is known for its LTO flavors. Summer LTOs at QuickChek include Rainbow Cookie — inspired by the red, white and green Italian rainbow cookies — as well as Kris Kringle, a holiday flavor that the company brings back every winter and again in summer for a ‘Christmas in July’ theme.
Overall, Smyly said QuickChek plans its LTOs in advance but maintains flexibility to pivot to new trends as they arise.
“A lot of times you’ll find, mid-year, there’s a different trend going on,” he said.
But pumpkin? Pumpkin’s a given.
As of Aug. 24, QuickChek is offering its Pumpkin Spice LTO, which is a few days earlier than last year’s release, for the simple reason that customers are asking for it, said Wendy Lyman, senior category manager of dispensed beverages and bakery for QuickChek.
Cliff’s Thurston gives a similar reason for the earlier release of pumpkin products this year, 2020, the year of all years.
“I think people need this,” he said.
The c-store added pumpkin on Aug. 10, up from Aug. 21 in 2019.
Other popular LTOs at Cliff’s are Chocolate Cannoli, Apple Pie in November, Mocha Mint around the holiday season and Dark Chocolate Raspberry Truffle to coincide with Valentine’s Day.
“I had a lady tell me she’d walk 20 miles to get the Dark Chocolate Raspberry Truffle,” Thurston said.
Increase Take-Home Options
As customers practice social distancing during COVID-19, working from home rather than heading to the office, they are stocking up on essentials — which, for many of us, includes coffee. Retailers are stocking more K-Cups and bags of ground coffee to appeal to these consumers and make up for a dip in morning traffic.
According to a CivicScience survey of nearly 2,400 U.S. adults in July, 77% of Americans said they brew coffee at home. And among the coffee-brewing crowd, nearly eight in 10 say they mostly do it in one of two ways: either with a standard drip pot (48%), or with a single-serve ‘pod’ coffee maker (29%).
Nielsen Total U.S. Convenience data shows that for the “pandemic period,” or the 21-week period ending July 25, 2020, total packaged coffee dollar sales were up 10%, and pod sales specifically were up a massive 22%.
At Cliff’s, take-home coffee sales — including Utica-branded bags as well as K-Cups — were up around 28%, Thurston said, which has helped offset the fact that overall hot dispensed sales were down.
“It makes sense because the morning daypart, that’s the daypart we’re still struggling with the most,” he said.
According to Nielsen, while pods were selling big and ground coffee was steady at a 0.7% increase, whole bean coffee was actually down 11.7% — perhaps explained by the fact that it had been up a massive 18.8% for the 2019 calendar year.
The shift to at-home brewing, of stocking up on pods and beans, may be more or less temporary, depending on how the pandemic plays out. But Thurston said it just works well to have a take-home option coincide with the hot dispensed program.
“We’ll always have the featured flavor that we’re brewing, and then we’ll have it available for sale in the back as well,” he said. “It’s a nice relationship; people try it, they like it. Then they buy the retail bags.”
Don’t Forget Cold Coffee
Iced and cold options like cold-brew coffee are more popular than ever, and not just in summer. Young customers especially may look for iced coffee well into the fall and winter months.
Cliff’s offers a cold-brew program with Bunn Nitron machines, available at six of its 19 locations so far.
“The one side is nitrogen-infused cold brew, and the other side is black. And that program’s pretty strong,” Thurston said. “The stores that sell the cold brew will have tenfold more sales than if you’re just brewing it into an urn and having it sit there.”
QuickChek has had less success with cold-brew coffee, but Smyly said iced is stronger than ever.
“We honestly see that as one of the biggest growth opportunities for us,” he said.
The c-store chain has added iced options to LTOs to meet customer demand, along with smoothies and other cold offers.
“We’re trying to be flexible and adapt to how the new, younger customer wants their offers,” said Smyly. “Our traditional coffee business has always been a real strength for the company, but we are also trying to keep that strength and expand into new, different ways to do coffee.”
It can’t be overstated that social media is a great advertising tool. Make sure your customers know about your offers by promoting them across social media channels in addition to more traditional venues like in-store signage. But social media is also the place to find out about new and upcoming trends.
According to Nielsen Total U.S. Convenience data, instant coffee was up 30.9% for the 21-week period ending July 25, 2020 — likely due to the recent dalgona coffee trend. The drink is made by whipping together instant coffee, sugar and water to make a foam that’s spooned over milk. The recipe went viral on TikTok and other social media sites. According to Google Trends, searches for “dalgona coffee” increased by 1,800% in mid-March and grew a further 1,700% in mid-April.
For QuickChek, social media’s a great way to find out which LTOs customers love — and what they want to see next. “We have a lot of people that send in requests or guesses for what the next LTO flavor’s going to be,” said Eric Rush, QuickChek’s digital marketing and advertising manager. “Wendy’s ability to nail LTO flavors keeps the coffee customer coming in.”
The chain has also gained some new customers from its recent partnership with DoorDash, racking up sales of smoothies and espresso-based drinks at non-traditional times.
But ultimately, Rush said, the best way to attract customers is to have the best coffee.
“The best thing we have is our brand equity,” he said. “Being the No. 1 coffee in our area for 50 years is a pretty good advertising tool.”