Atmospherics: Delivering More than a Cup

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By Emma Bladyka

Scientifically speaking, drinking a cup of coffee is what is called a multimodal sensory experience. This means that it’s the interaction of our five senses, and all the external factors influencing them (called “multisensory interactions”), which underlie our perception of flavor (Auvray and Spence 2008). There is also research (and lots of anecdotal evidence from the coffee industry) to support the notion that the coffee retail environment is not just about the beverage, but also about the experience (Tumanan and Lansangan 2012). Many of us have heard the phrase, “the third place,” which was coined by Ray Oldenburg to describe a public place where a person experiences a social network other than their home and work (Oldenburg 1989). Coffeehouses have been an influential such “third place” for many generations, and have played an important role in the social and political history of modern civilizations (Pendergrast 2010). Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that the coffeehouse, with its physical as well as intangible properties, has a complicated influence over those who enter. It turns out that in retail environments, including our coffee-selling establishments, there is a whole category of influence that has power over your customers. That’s right: the atmosphere of a cafe.

An ample body of scientific evidence exists to support what all coffee retailers already intuitively know: ambiance affects customer behavior. Understanding customer behavior is critical to their business as it pertains to how much money customers will spend, how likely they are to stay and sit (and need more coffee), whether they will return another day, or if they’ll tell their friends about it. This is why multiple coffee retail environments have been developed to play to different customer demographics and desires. It will come as no surprise to us as members of the coffee industry that, in cases of sensory or preference studies, scientific methods haven’t been able to accurately predict customer behaviors in a laboratory setting. Of course, this is because the environment around us—those big cozy chairs, that sleek espresso bar, our individual histories, the day’s context—affects our personal experience with our food or beverages.

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