SCAA Symposium with James Hoffmann: Re-imagining Retail

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James Hoffmann is widely considered one of the notable voices in the global specialty coffee industry, and he delivered an emphatic talk to end the annual SCAA Symposium. Titled “Re-imagining the Retail Experience,” Hoffmann wrapped together the final experience for coffee consumers – the retail coffee bar.

He began by relating a £1 burger (in London) to a £15 burger in a fancy restaurant. To explain the incredible range between the two prices and products, he began to go into detail. There are obviously better ingredients in the second burger. It’s prepared better. There’s a better ambiance and environment to enjoy said burger. And the service is better with the fancy burger. Yet one of them is not more righteous or better than the other. Sure, people might be happier to give their money with the second one, perhaps even giving a tip or gratuity on top of the retail price. But the fancy burger would feel out of place inside of a McDonald’s.

Hoffmann went on to relate the variety of experiences available for burgers to the lack of that kind of variety in the coffee business. In general, coffee seems to be a volume business where shops are trying to accommodate the greatest number of people. Some shops like Prufrock, or more locally here in L.A, Handsome Coffee, offer a more limited experience, but perhaps a better one for customers. By simplifying the concept from the number of products available to customers, and offering a higher level of personable service, Handsome Coffee is able to offer more unique experience than the garden variety corner coffee bar.

In the short term, the coffee industry’s overall homogenous nature will hurt it. It needs to achieve a stratification of experiences like other serious culinary products: wine, cheese, and beer. There needs to be different value experiences available for sale.

The question James Hoffmann posed was, how can we deconstruct the coffee experience? What types of things can we keep constant, such as, serving only coffee drinks that the barista loves. Perhaps coffee shops can also make another constant, “fun.” Hoffmann believes in communicating this stance to consumers so that they can have appropriate expectation for their experience. In the end though, he still believes that service, environment, and experience will be the definite factors in elevating the coffee business’s retail presence.

While he argued for a diversity of experiences for customers, Hoffmann wasn’t able to go into detail as to what those different experiences would look like. Rather than offering models or examples, he allowed the audience to find their own.


Matthew Kang

Find more of Matthew's writing on his blog, Mattatouille. Find him behind the Scoops Westside counter.

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