A View on Coffee Loyalty Cards

An interesting look at the concept of coffee shop loyalty cards came through my twitter feed recently, published by 2007 World Barista champion James Hoffmann (Twitter) on his site jimseven. He is also the Managing Director of Square Mile Coffee Roasters in East London.

They aren’t really loyalty cards, they’re more accurately described as discount cards. They are a fancy and convoluted form of coupons. Great coffee shops tend not to think of themselves as the sort of places that offer discount coupons but that is what loyalty cards are.

Let’s not fool ourselves: no one is loyal because of the card. No one is going to avoid other coffee shops simply because of the fact they carry a single loyalty card in their wallet for their favourite cafe.

I have often wondered on the real value of these systems, and agree wholeheartedly with Hoffmann’s comments, however I would also ask the question of whether anyone would really desert their favourite cafe if there suddenly was no card. If no one is loyal because of the card, I would venture to say no-one would necessarily be disloyal if they were suddenly without the card. I acknowledge I may be quite wrong about this.

Hoffmann’s point being, surely the only way to create loyalty to your cafe or brand is not through a discount programme, the design of which came from “companies with a commoditised product who were looking for a competitive edge” and goes on to point out specialty coffee is a “differentiated product, not a commoditised one”.

This led me to think on how I view these types of programmes, though given my interests in home roasting and coffee in general – am I biased? Could I really see this from the perspective of the average consumer? In posing these questions, there is no suggestion Hoffmann is struck with this bias, and if so, I do not see this as an issue, for it is those within an industry who must look at various issues from time to time and generate further thought and discussion. After all, it is often these types of initiatives that drift towards being “industry standards” without much question or analysis.

Why do I drink where I drink? The people, the quality, the blend, the ambience of a cafe? On thinking further about this, it comes down to two things for me – the coffee and the people. These two components control and influence the entire experience and quality thereafter.

The people
Primarily their passion for serving up consistently high quality coffee every single time I visit. I have waited a little longer at times whilst a barista has said, “sorry I’m not happy with that” and extracted the shot again. Knowing that the shot and resulting drink, whether short, long, with milk or without has been made with effort, and he or she has strived to achieve their best work with every cup is something that will keep me coming back time and time again.

I think those same characteristics then lead on to other facets such as the cleanliness of both machine and overall facility, and level of service in general. I’ve found that in striving to achieve the perfect cup, these cafés are (generally) not prepared to let standards slip in other areas either.

The Coffee
Am I sitting here writing this as an expert? Far from it. Am I an enthusiastic home roaster who blogs about my coffee roasts and brews? Absolutely, and am therefore part of a group of consumers who will take note of what I have described above when deciding where to consume coffee we don’t roast and brew ourselves. I love trying out new cafés, and generally try them a couple of times to assess consistency and perhaps allow for an off day, but everything that keeps me coming back will be evident quite soon in this vetting process.

When I say the coffee, I am talking about the brand, blend and how it is served. One café I faithfully attend every day, serves espresso based drinks with one full-bodied blend. Another I regularly visit serves espresso based drinks with the choice of house blend, or the single origin of the day, along with three additional Artisan Light Roasts served up through V60, Chemex, Siphon, or Aeropress methods – yes, absolute heaven for the enthusiastic consumer. All of these options are served with advice, great passion, and follow-up on how you enjoyed the result.

What’s my point about loyalty cards?
So what am I really trying to say here? Probably my main point is to question whether loyalty cards actually have any effect at all on consumer behaviour. Does a loyalty card really have any power in driving consumer behaviour, or is it something that is nice to have, is a little bonus, but in the end we would all visit our favourite cafe anyway, even if no loyalty programme existed. I can’t help but think the industry as a whole may have overestimated the effect of these programmes in the absence of any real measurable data (remember, non industry person speaking here).

I have always declined to use loyalty cards on the basis that I am, and always have been, happy to pay for a quality product with service to match. It is also interesting to immediately hear discussion and comment when visiting a cafe with a group, if prices are more expensive than what is expected (a discussion for another post) – never anything about loyalty cards. Try as I might, I just cannot imagine people going back to an unclean facility to drink something made by rude staff that is at best unappealing in taste – but then again it happens. As to why this occurs, I do not have an answer. Though to be fair, a cafe exhibiting all of these features would probably not survive for very long – but surely it is not simply because of a loyalty card. Surely?

Upon having my wife proofread this prior to posting, she informs me I am probably biased, and she believes many do use these cards extensively at multiple outlets, searching out the “freebies” that are on offer. So perhaps my point of view is inaccurate in relation to these loyalty programmes, however I would like to think that once these consumers have searched around, when they hit on a great cafe, the quality and service will ultimately trump the card.

Electronic Loyalty Cards
As Hoffmann suggests, newer electronic forms of these types of programmes may provide a way to gain more meaningful data on consumer patterns or preferences. Again, I am not familiar with usual cafe measures other than cups served or kilograms through the hopper per day, so am really not in a position to comment in detail on this. However, the very first loyalty programme I am actually using appears similar to the Harris and Hoole app Hoffmann links to and discusses in his post.

So, why am I using this one, given my comments above? Put simply, it makes the experience of ordering and paying easier, and reduces my wait time during a critical part of the day – on my way to work.

The app itself is called Beat the Q, and sits on the home screen of my iPhone (see left in image below). As the cafe is a very busy one, often a visit on my way to work required a wait that at times probably became a little longer than I would have liked.

Signage at the cafe promoted the use of this app, and after downloading and creating an account, I can now order through my phone as I get off the bus. By the time I reach the cafe, I have only to wait another couple of minutes at most, with my order being placed about 8 or 10 minutes prior to arriving. Upon speaking with the staff, at least as many if not more orders are received through this process than the standard walk up queue during the busy before work period.

Beat the Q
Beat the Q

The bonus? A free coffee upon signing up to the app (top ups via credit card or PayPal within the app), with the tenth coffee free (see right in image above). The app also saves your favourite order, and confirms with a notification when it has been received. The whole process is very smooth and works well. What it provides for the cafe in the form of additional data may be where this differs from traditional cards, though I would have thought similar data could be gained through the register. Perhaps not.

Would I turn off the tenth cup free option if I could? Maybe, but as long as I keep using the app that is a moot point, as it occurs automatically (though I do try to tip at least the value of the free drink over the course of the loyalty period or thereabouts). The only downside I see with this type of system is that it may result in a little less interaction between staff and customers if the entire experience occurs through this type of transaction. I guess only time will tell.

Conclusion
As I have pointed out earlier, I am merely an enthusiastic coffee consumer and home roaster who got thinking on this subject after reading Hoffmann’s thoughtful and well crafted post. My main aim when I purchase from a cafe is to support quality and passion, which ensures I will enjoy what I purchase, and am happy to pay for the privilege – and every cup I consume.

As to the value of loyalty programmes and where they should be headed? That is for those in the industry (such as Hoffmann) to decide, though I believe with further analysis and discussion on points such as these, we as consumers can only be better off.

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