The pandemic left offices and campuses across the country empty for months on end; it’s no surprise, then, that office coffee serves (OCS) sales, according to the National Coffee Association (NCA), dropped significantly during this time. But as the majority of the U.S. returns to a sense of normalcy, will the coffee market pick up right where it left off? According to a recent survey by the NCA and Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), the answer isn’t a simple one.
The NCA and SCAA joined forces to release the report, “Coffee, Consumers and COVID-19, Roadmap to Recovery,” which points to some key trends within the coffee industry moving forward. While overall coffee consumption remained relatively unchanged even through the pandemic, consumption of specialty coffee—here defined as “espresso-based beverages [such as] cappuccinos [and] lattes and non-espresso based beverages (frozen blended coffee, cold brew and nitrogen-infused coffee)”—saw a concerning drop. The specialty coffee category also includes a subsection referred to as “TCS,” or traditional coffee specialty; defined as traditional coffee drinks made with premium beans, as well as ready-to-drink (RTD) coffee beverages.
It’s this TCS category where a major drop occurred; while 16% of survey-takers reported consuming TCS drinks in 2017, just 9% said the same in January 2020. Espresso purchases also saw a precipitous drop during the pandemic; the number of respondents who reported consuming an espresso drink in the last 24 hours dropped to 20%, a 4-point dip from pre-pandemic levels. However, in January 2021, that number rose by 2 points, perhaps signaling a shift back to normalized levels.
Food & Beverage Insider insights
The drop in sales of specialty coffee drinks can be linked to two major causes. First, these drinks are simply more difficult to make at home than a regular cup of joe. Not many consumers have access to fancy (and often quite expensive) espresso or specialty coffee machines, and with many coffeeshops first closed completely, then open only for takeout, during much of the pandemic, these drinks were more difficult to come by. Second, even when these drinks became available again, they remain more expensive than a traditional coffee. COVID-driven layoffs and other financial difficulties faced by many Americans meant less money for indulgence or nonessential items. NCA and SCAA data also show specialty coffee drinkers tend to skew younger than consumers of traditional coffee, with most under 40. With rising student loan, child care and other costs, the treat of a $10 coffee drink becomes more difficult to justify during such an uncertain time.
Through all the data, it becomes clear that overall desire for specialty coffee (as well as regular coffee) is not dropping; rather, the pandemic limited opportunity to purchase. For brands and formulators, the pandemic can serve as a wake-up call that specialty coffee drinks can and should be more accessible—think cheaper home machines, more innovative RTD options and more. Specialty brands could also use customer outreach and social media to share tips and recipes that allow consumers to feel more comfortable re-creating that mocha-Frappuccino-espresso-foam drink they love to share on Instagram. Think of the success of Dalgona coffee—an easy-to-make at-home recipe of instant coffee, sugar, hot water and milk that became an overnight viral sensation early in the pandemic.
Coffee consumption isn’t going anywhere. But the pandemic made it obvious how much a lack of social outings can affect the market. While another year-long lockdown is unlikely in the near future, brands can take this time to learn how and where consumers get their morning pick-me-up and how to best meet them in the middle.