Coffee shop problem

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One of my friends who I first met when we were working on global brands at Unilever, took a change in career running their own chocolatier and coffee shop at a lovely market town outside London.

i love coffee (Credit to

Coffee shops for years have had a nice line in selling branded insulated cups. The rationale is that these cups can be re-used and act as branded marketing for the shop. In the past you have had a push on using these insulated cups in the name of going green. There was a mix of take-up, but adoption was increasing over time.

The barriers to using re-usable cups include:

  • Having a cup big enough to take your drink. Coffee shop chains offer their branded cups. And if you don’t want to be a Café Nero billboard, you can buy cups from the likes of Stanley that will keep your drink warm for up to eight hours.
  • Having your cup with you. For drivers having a cup and a cup holder in their vehicle is easy enough. the challenge is when they take it into the home or workplace to clean the cup. They need to remember to have it back in their car. Public transport users have a similar problem but need a bag to hold their cup and their work ritual paraphernalia. One of the benefits of a single-use cup is not having to remember.
  • Having to wash the cups. Coffee shops have to wash cups used by people drinking in a coffee shop, but customers coming in with re-usable cups would need an immediate clean. I did notice in a Starbucks in a Hong Kong neighbourhood that customers left their cups overnight with the shop. However for most shops relying on customers to clean the cup themselves and a quick blast of steam from the coffee machine cappuccino function should be enough.

Customer habits

Pre-COVID the coffee shop problem looked as if it was being slowly but surely being addressed. This was because a significant minority of customers were going to their local coffee shop near work or home with a reusable cup. You are building a smaller habit with a bigger habit as a trigger: taking your reusable cup with you as you leave home prepared for work.

COVID-19 changed the whole coffee shop experience. Insurance companies had already been pushing store-owners towards cashless transactions. But now hygiene had its place as well. We were divided from baristas with a sea of perspex and reusable cups were not accepted.

Wider daily routines were broken with working from home, and the atomic habit of a daily caffeine fix was shattered. There were other aspects going on as well. Consumers got used to making coffee at home, or not going into their workplace at all. A regular coffee habit has been more difficult to reform due to hybrid working and the cost of living crisis probably hasn’t. helped the coffee shop problem either.

Back to my friend’s coffee shop

So back to the discussion that inspired this post:

We give a 30p discount for bringing your own takeaway cup, but out of the almost 400 takeaway drinks we’ve served in the last week only 11 times have we been able to give this discount. We’ve started talking about how we can help facilitate this behaviour change more as part of our sustainability drives. One idea being explored is to actually start charging for takeaway cups rather than discounting for bringing your own…

This equates to less than 2.75% redemption rate. My take on the coffee shop problem is outlined below:

Reduce friction and doubt: Tell people you will accept any takeaway cup that has room to hold the coffee (if its bigger thats fine).

Optimise any behaviour change activities that you are likely to implement: a Phil Graves research outlined in Consumerology supports the heuristic that positive reinforcement tends to be slightly better over time. But one thing to remember is that behavioural change is a war of inches. For instance reframe the above statement ‘In just one week we’ve already helped almost 3 percent of our customer base move to reusable cups’. This then becomes a social proof that encourages consumer reading the copy to be part of a growing movement.

A cup ‘fine’ might be like a sin tax – this paper on late pick up fines at an Israeli childcare centre is often quoted in behaviour change books. Here’s a synopsis of story laid out in the research paper. In day care centres in Israel, economists tried to help schools identify ways to reduce late pick-ups. Economists conducted a study by announcing that any parent arriving more than ten minutes late would pay a $3 fine. After the fine was enacted, the number of late pickups promptly went up by 100%. As soon as parents had the option to pay a small fine and avoid the guilt of making a teacher wait, they took it en masse.

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