What’s in the Bag?

Coffee Companies Get Creative with their Packaging

For decades, coffee packaging was a pretty uniform affair. Instant coffee came in glass jars with plastic screw-top lids. Ground coffee and whole beans were sold in large cans…and the really good stuff came in paper bags.

You might not be able to judge a book by its cover, but when it came to buying coffee in a grocery store, how it was packaged was a pretty good indicator of what you were going to get in your cup. That’s not the case anymore because, over the last few years, manufacturers have upped their game when it comes to packaging. And in the last 15 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced specialty coffee companies to radically reimagine their sales strategies – and how they package their products.

The coffee revolution in the US can be traced back to the rise of chains like Starbucks when consumers began preferring cafe-quality coffee. Today, nearly 20% of home coffee drinkers are consuming coffees branded by Starbucks, Peet’s, or any number of boutique roasteries, but thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, coffee shop closures are up by nearly 45%. In effect, this means that more consumers want access to high-end coffee but have fewer places to buy it – and producers of high-end coffees have fewer ways to get their products to consumers.

Innovative retailers are doing their best to adapt to changing conditions in any way they can. With so many people working remotely, the cup of coffee during the morning commute has become a home-office cup. Not only did people start buying more home brewing equipment over the last year, but online coffee sales rose by 43%. The companies that could provide a simple and clean delivery experience have been the ones who weathered the pandemic. Those cafes that stayed open adopted click-and-collect curbside pickup business models that allowed consumers to order their coffee ahead of time and swing by to pick it up.

All of this home shopping for coffee means that consumers now have a whole world of options to choose from, and with so much competition for each order, coffee companies have had to step up their branding to stand out from the crowd. This means that selling a package of coffee requires more than just a boring paper bag or a generic can. Coffee companies that have successfully pivoted to a home-delivery model have done so by creating attractive websites, easy-to-use e-commerce platforms, and packaging that gives customers a positive experience, even if they’re in their kitchens brewing a cup between Zoom calls.

Memorable packaging can make a huge difference, and a recent report claims that most customers choose which product to purchase based on color alone. Tins and cloth coffee pouches have been a big hit with consumers during the pandemic because they can be reused in all sorts of ways. Likewise, some companies are turning to stickers as an innovative way to brand their containers and are even including them with orders so that customers can decorate their items with attractive branded imagery. The pandemic has also seen a sharp rise in coffee companies ordering custom labels and branded pouches as they seek to make their offerings stand out from the pack.

One great example of this is Balzac’s Coffee, which in recent years has become a mainstay of the Toronto coffee scene. There are several locations in the city (including in an old factory and a former power plant), but COVID restrictions have kept the stores closed for most of the last year as a result of Ontario provincial lockdowns. However, unlike many other retailers that have had to close their doors, Balzac’s has been able to weather the pandemic by pivoting to a mail-order model that is driven by a unique and bold aesthetic that is instantly recognizable to Torontonians. The coffee is pretty great, but one of the main reasons that people buy it is that Balzac’s bags and cans are incredibly attractive and enticing.

The pandemic changed how we buy, sell, and drink coffee, but thankfully it could not kill our love for the brew. Like many other businesses, cafes and roasteries have had to adapt to survive in the worst retail climate in our lifetimes. With people at home free to browse and research their new favorite coffees to have them delivered or pick up curbside, those brands with the most eye-catching packaging will be the ones that get customers to press “Confirm Order.”

by Andrew Witkin

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