Reaching Coffee Shoppers: Right Place, Right Time

By Rebecca Brooks, Alter Agents

We’ve seen shopper behavior evolve considerably over the past decade. Ecommerce has accelerated, and younger generations have taken more market share, leading to some unexpected changes in the retail landscape. We were in a state of change before the pandemic upended life, and consumers are still coming out of that disruption.

My company, Alter Agents, conducted a national survey into shopper behavior earlier this spring. The research asked 6,000 recent purchasers who had bought in six product and service categories, including packaged coffee, about how they made their purchase decisions. The data gave us robust insights into how consumers are considering and making their purchases as the pandemic continues to change the economic and social landscape. The broad conclusion:

Today’s shoppers are thirsty for more information.

They look for it in more places.

Advertisers need to keep up.

Acquiring Customers from Competition is Difficult

Capturing more of the pre-packaged coffee market’s share can be difficult. Shoppers in this vertical have established brand preferences and don’t spend much time mulling over their decisions. But they still do some research.

Most Minds are Already Made Up

Our study found that coffee shoppers are pretty loyal to brands, with nearly two-thirds of them said that they ended up buying from the brand they first had in mind. And just five percent said that they had a brand in mind when they started shopping but ended up buying another. With defections so low compared to loyalty-driven purchases, the key here isn’t to poach your competitor’s consumer. Instead, it’s to compete for the brand-ambivalent customer.

The shoppers in that category – we call them “ambivalents” – are 30 percent of the market. They didn’t have a specific brand in mind when they set out. We also know that 42 percent of packaged coffee buyers identify as impulsive shoppers, so they’re willing to try new things and be swayed in the moment.

There’s a Short Decision Window

Our data shows that the window brands have to convince consumers is short. The vast majority of these shoppers decide which coffee they’ll buy within a day – a whopping 81 percent. And 42 percent say that they make their purchase decision immediately in the moment, which is a much higher share than we see in shoppers overall. So reaching these customers isn’t about long, convincing campaigns. It’s about being exactly in the right place at the right time.

Right Place, Right Time

So, where does your brand need to be in order to attract ambivalent shoppers? Our study presented shoppers with a list of over fifty different sources of information they may have consulted to inform their decision, from online searches to paper ads to things they might see in the store. We found that packaged coffee shoppers consult an average of 12 sources. It seems like a high number over a short period, but these come in rapid succession.

The most often-cited sources were signage in the store, signage at the shelf, and product packaging. Shoppers also frequently mentioned considering ads in the store’s paper circular or recommendations from friends and family. The world may be digitizing at an ever-increasing rate, but coffee brands still need to play the retailers’ game of jockeying for the best position on the shelf, getting their signage in the store, and developing the most consumer-friendly packaging.

What’s interesting is that beyond asking shoppers about the sources they used, we also asked them about which sources were the most influential to help us calculate a specific source’s overall “value.” These coffee shoppers overwhelmingly said that they didn’t use audio or TV ad sources when making a decision, and those that did said that they weren’t influenced by them. This is just one example of how the right consumer insights can help to target advertising spends in the most impactful way.

Many believe, especially in recent months, that shoppers’ habits are constantly changing. And on a generational, demographic, and economy-wide level, that’s true. But seeing that analog sources still dominate the game for packaged coffee drives home that brands need to know when shoppers are following macro behavioral trends and when they’re not. So for coffee, for now, it all comes down to the shelf.

Rebecca Brooks is an entrepreneur, columnist, and mother with 20 years’ experience in the market research industry. As Founder and CEO of full-service market research consultancy Alter Agents (, she feeds her inherent curiosity by uncovering the complicated paths today’s consumers take to help clients make better decisions every day. Rebecca’s passion for creating a rich, energized, and balanced work environment – while delivering exceptional quality and value – has created an authentic culture of collaboration at her company. She holds a B.A. in Anthropology from the College of William & Mary.

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