Here in Prague we’ve got 3 players in the ‘Starbucks style’ coffee shop market (and some pretty decent small ‘classic’ cafes, and a fair few ‘grand cafe’ type places too). Personally I’ll have a coffee anywhere that serves a decent cup, but some of the smaller places are losing out to the chains. It would be a shame to lose some of these places but inevitability is knocking at the door.
Reason one: to-go
The big guys will all serve you coffee to go in a big takeaway cup. The smaller cafes don’t even have a serving size equivalent to the Venti or Massimo (extra large!). That just doesn’t fit with the image of a coffee to go that we see on TV – business person drinking from an oversized coffee cup like it’s a baby’s bottle.
Reason two: comfy chairs and sofas for those who drink ‘in’
Reason three: an array of pastries and snacks on display, some that you can pick up and go to the counter with
Reason four: consistent, basic service – sure table service is nice (well, in Prague it sometimes isn’t) but walking up the counter and ordering your beverage of choice, in the knowledge that it’ll be ready in around 2-3 minutes, is comforting in an odd ‘hanging around at the end of the coffee counter’ kind of way. And you know what the score is there, you don’t think ‘is it table service or counter service? Do I pay when I order or after?’.
If you’re in Prague the following names will be very familiar to you: Dobra Trafika, Kaaba and Kava Kava Kava (so good they named it thrice).They were all here before the chains arrived and they do OK but they’ve not expanded as much and don’t have a presence in malls, like the others.
The chains have innovated – they’ve expanded the product line – you’d get odd looks asking for a ‘tall soya latte with caramel’ in Ebel. They’ve innovated with branding – creating brands that are instantly recognisable, stamped all over the china and paper cups, on bags, loyalty cards and merchandise. They’ve innovated experientially – it’s a comfy chairs, spend a few hours kind of place. They deliver an experience in the same way that McDonalds and Coca-Cola do – with coke it’s not about the taste it’s about the advertising, the smell of the burgers that reminds you of your childhood, the ‘hand-embellishment’ of the can or bottle.
Whilst they’re a little less personal, the chains are winning out because they’ve got the money to spend opening branches. They’ve got the brand that says ‘you’ll get decent coffee, and pre-packed sandwiches here’.
How could the independents fight back? Loyalty cards? Start selling factory-produced sandwiches and overpriced microwave-warmed muffins?
Here are a few simple ideas that might help:
- Bundle – none of the chains are doing this, in Prague at least. None of them are doing the simplest thing McDonalds did to boost revenue – the ‘extra value meal’. It’s all about share of customer. You’ve already got them in the door, why shouldn’t you try and make the most you can by serving them? Coffee and cake are meant for each other – give a small discount and make the customer’s decision easier. Do I spend $3 on a coffee and another $3 on a cake? How about $5 for coffee AND cake. Their cakes are usually better and fresher than the chain ones anyway!
- Loyalty mug – have some mugs made with your logo on, buy a sharpie. Your staff recognise your regulars – you don’t need to tempt people with expensive-to-run loyalty cards. Write the regular’s name on the mug with a sharpie, along with the details of their favourite coffee. Hang them up behind the bar – others will want one for themselves. (And yes, I did take this idea from the local pubs that do the same for their regulars.) For extra points (we’re out of the realms of simplicity here but this is where it gets good) barcode it and match the barcode up on your point-of-sale system – and every now and again (randomly, maybe every tenth or twelfth visit) comp their coffee and say ‘this one is on us’, you’ll also be able to see how effective this strategy is, with real numbers. Record how often that person comes in. Really regular customers get a mug to take home too (just give them their old mug and write on a new one).
- See what the big guys are doing well and neutralise their competitive advantage as much as you can. Offer free wi-fi if you aren’t already. Make it obvious that you offer to-go, put the to-go cups on display and on the large menu board you have above the bar (you do have one of those don’t you?) have a section that says ‘place to-go orders at the bar otherwise have a seat and we’ll come take your order’ – and put menus on the tables so people aren’t straining their eyes to see the menu at the bar. Don’t have comfortable, welcoming seating? Get some.
- Be thoughtful. You should really clear your palette after drinking a coffee, but after paying $4 for a coffee at a chain, you’re not that enthusiastic to spend another $2 just to clear your palette. Some but not all places do this – serve a small glass of water with the coffee, it doesn’t have to be expensive bottled water (for environmental reasons it shouldn’t be), but use a water filter and make sure customers know it’s not just tap water.
- Celebrate your differences – as an independent you’re not bound by ‘corporate think’. Encourage your staff to be creative in their work and test out new ideas. Involve yourself in your community, have local artists hang their work on your walls. You’re not an impersonal chain, you are your customer’s very own coffee sanctuary.
What ways would you suggest an independent cafe differentiate itself from the Starbucks of this world? Comment here.