Consumer Habits: Coffee “To-Go” in Europe

22 October 2012: by Bob O’Brien
Global Senior Vice President at The NPD Group

I’m reading “Zero History” by William Gibson.  It is the last book of a trilogy that pretty much predicted YouTube and applications like Layar before there was any reasonable way for either to exist. And, yes, he gave us the term “cyberspace” in 1982.

This book is nominally about marketing…or maybe not, it’s hard to tell.  It was a little unsettling when he had the protagonist (Or maybe she’s not. Again, hard to tell.) stay in the same random Paris hotel where my wife and I mistakenly spent the first night of our honeymoon.  It was more unsettling when I read this:

“…she wondered exactly when coffee had gone walkabout in France.  When she’d first been here, drinking coffee hadn’t been a pedestrian activity.  One either sat to do it, in cafes or restaurants, or stood, at bars or on railway platforms, and drank from sturdy vessels, china or glass, themselves made in France.  Had Starbucks brought the takeaway cup? she wondered. She doubted it.  They hadn’t really had the time.  More likely McDonald’s.”

I love the term “gone walkabout.”  No offence to my fellow NPD bloggers but that little snippet is likely the best writing you’ll come across in this or any NPD blog.

For the past couple of years, I’ve included my own little riff on this in presentations I’ve done at conferences.

In 1997, when I was meeting with folks from our various European offices to brief them on CREST foodservice industry research and how we use it to help the industry make decisions, an Italian guy in the audience raised his hand and said “that chart is wrong”.  We were looking at a chart that showed how consumers in the US consumed coffee.  It showed the dayparts.  It showed the restaurant channels.  It also showed where consumers actually drank their coffee.  That part of the chart showed that about 40% (maybe more, I don’t remember exactly now) was consumed off-premises…on the go.

My colleague said that this couldn’t be correct.  ”Coffee is not for carrying!  Coffee is to be ordered from a bar and consumed at the bar or at a table, with someone.”  We discussed the issues and concluded that the chart was correct and that Americans were ridiculous, which I’ve found is a satisfactory conclusion to conversations for most people in the world.

Further to this conversation, I heard a presentation by a woman named Vanessa Kullman, the founder of Balzac Coffee in Hamburg.  She told the story of how, interviewing people walking by the front door of what was to be her first shop, they universally rejected the idea of buying coffee in a paper cup and taking it away.  She had to buy the cups and tops in the US and warehouse them in Germany because there was no European source.  At the time of her presentation she had over 50 shops.  Gutsy.

But:  in 2000, as the chart below shows, nobody bought coffee to go in the countries we track.  Today, a huge chunk of Northern European consumers buy coffee to go.  Coffee hasn’t just “gone walkabout” in France. It’s everywhere.  And, it’s not just a global brand that did it, Vanessa Kullman and other gutsy business people did it all over the place.

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