Coffee, communication and community: coffee shop culture in a time of COVID-19 and social distancing
Until recently the UK, like many other countries across the world, had a vibrant coffee shop culture. Towns and cities filled with bustling coffee shops, with many people visiting them on a regular basis as part of their daily lives. In the last few months, this has all begun to change as COVID-19 began to spread and countries sought to implement progressively stringent measures of social distancing, culminating in lockdowns for many populations. The high street coffee shop culture that has become an integral part of many places abruptly receded. Some stores tried to limit customer numbers to enable social distancing, others switched to a takeaway only model, and ultimately many have had to close due to government restrictions on which essential businesses could remain open.
While many retail sectors have tumbled due to store closures as a result of the UK-wide lockdown restrictions, a recent BBC News article reported how coffee was one of the few industries that was experiencing a rise in sales. It used the example of Rave coffee roasters, based in Cirencester, that had to take on more staff to cope with increased demand. However, this boom is not being experienced by all coffee shops and roasters, which do not have the option to stay open, do not have a roasting part of their business, or do not have the facilities to change their business to an online model.
At the other end of the scale there are indications that for some coffee shops the loss of income resulting from the extended closure will mean that business will be permanently closed, which in turn has impacts on baristas and staff who have been furloughed or may lose their jobs. Given the size of the coffee shop industry (£10.5 billion in the UK alone with over 25,000 outlets), even a small percentage change in activity will have dramatic impacts on businesses and livelihoods. As in many other sectors of the economy, the coffee industry has had to adapt rapidly. Online sales of coffee have risen sharply as people in isolation seek to ensure they have coffee to keep them supplied at home.
The Specialty Coffee Association ran a survey of its members (from a range of countries) to gauge the impacts from and responses to the COVID-19 situation. The large majority of coffee shop retail and roaster respondents acknowledged that the spread of the virus was going to have a negative impact on their business, with some suggesting that they were likely to go out of business as a result. The survey revealed how for many businesses sales to consumers in-person had drastically reduced, while sales to consumers online had increased. It also highlighted how there were a range of ways businesses were responding to the spread of the virus, with key strategies including a move towards online sales, switching to takeaway sales, communication, considering grocery channels and investigating delivery which were explored in more depth in a series of webinars.
The COVID-19 crisis has meant that for those coffee shops and roasters that have been able to remain active, they have had to adapt their businesses rapidly. There have been examples of coffee shops changing their physical layout so they can facilitate takeaway online and ensuring social distancing, with others focusing on online retail sales of their roasted coffee (or coffee of other local roasters) to try and maintain their customer base. Other coffee shops are trying to completely shift to an online model, and other still that are trying to team up with other local businesses to expand their product offering. There are clearly lots of different activities taking place in the industry to try and stay active.
In many places, coffee shops are an important part of the community, with people enjoying the routine of visiting a local coffee (or one near their workplace) as part of their daily lives. Many coffee shops and roasters have sought to maintain that connection with their consumer base through enhancing their marketing and engagement online via social media and email communications. Communication has been key for these businesses to let consumers know they are still operating, and to maintain that connection. While for many businesses social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook are already an important part of operations, for others this is a more embryonic part of the business and has required a shift to use these as the dominant communication channel, rather than face-to-face interactions in the coffee shop. For some business, these adaptations of moving to online sales and increased digital marketing may come naturally, while for others these require new skill sets and resources, and they will need to support to be able to do so.
At the same time, with more people drinking coffee at home and a reported increase of purchases of coffee-making equipment for the home, there is the potential for consumer habits to change, which could have an impact on coffee consumption habits in the future. Many coffee businesses have recognised this shift and have been producing various brew guides for making different types of coffee that people would have previously just had made for them in the coffee shop.
There is currently no detailed plan for when restrictions in the UK will be relaxed, or when coffee shops may be able to resume operations again, although other countries have started to remove some restrictions, with coffee shops being some of the first businesses to reopen. On 20th April, Germany – having experienced a sustained reduction in the rate of new COVID-19 infection case, has eased restriction on shops, with many people returning to some of their favourite coffee shops in part to resume their coffee habits, but also to re-connect with their local coffee shop and its staff. While many businesses may be keen to reopen, an opinion piece on United Baristas highlights how there are many challenges associated with this. It stressed that there needs to be government support for the industry, and there also needs to be clear government guidance on issues related to social distancing, personal protection requirements for staff/customers, as well as support from landlords. When the UK emerges from lockdown, it is not going to be a return to business as usual; business will still need to navigate the changing landscape, and will need support to do so.
The impact of COVID-19 on coffee shop culture has been global, and the International Coffee Organisation (ICO) has recognised in a recent report on the crisis that the spread of the virus is ‘likely to have a profound impact on the global coffee sector, including production, consumption and international trade’. These impacts on the coffee industry, and on coffee shops and roasters in particular are still uncertain. So many questions can be raised about the future of the coffee industry, in part, because the COVID-19 situation is still rapidly evolving and societies are having to adapt and shift as it does so. Researching the coffee and coffee shop industries has been ongoing in the Centre for Business in Society (CBiS) with research examining its development and roles in towns and cities, their function as ‘spaces of community’, as well as considering issues around the circular economy, and sustainability in the coffee supply chain. CBiS will continue to explore the developments in this sector to examine: What impact COVID-19 will have on the operation of coffee shops and roasters? What impact will this have on the places they are located? Will consumers shift their behaviours back to pre-lockdown conditions after restrictions are relaxed, or will a new coffee culture emerge? Will coffee shops return to the vibrant, bustling spaces in the high street as they have been in the past?
By Dr Jennifer Ferreira and Dr Carlos Ferreira, Coventry Business School, University of Coventry
This article was originally published on the Coventry University Research Blog and has been reshared here with the authors' permission. For more information on research on the coffee and coffee shop industries from the Centre for Business in Society, please contact: Dr Jennifer Ferreira or visit the research blog ‘Café Spaces’.