Neil Martinson: what we can learn from coffee shops...

What does the inexorable rise of coffee shops in the UK tell us?

Neil Martinson: time to think about public/private interface

The chances are that you will buy a least one cup of coffee a day, every day, from your favourite coffee shop. Most likely it will be one of the major chains and most of your colleagues will do the same. Almost certainly you will have met friends at the weekend in a coffee shop or had work meetings there. Perhaps, even, a blind date. You may have very strong feeling of brand loyalty to that coffee shop. Is that what you did and felt ten years ago? Probably not, so what changed and why did they become so popular?

There were a couple of economic factors that played a part. The significant growth in disposable income over the past decade meant we could afford those little exotic coffee perks. The availability of empty high street locations, which could have contributed to a sense of decay, became an opportunity for enterprising coffee chains and breathed new life into public spaces.

It was also a time that saw the growth of the organic food market and an ever-wider range of food and nutritional products. And there was ‘Friends’. Not mine or yours, but the phenomenally successful and influential American television show set around a…coffee shop.

What we saw in ‘Friends’ was that coffee shops could be places that went beyond transactional relationships. Where we could meet friends or bump into colleagues, or neighbours, during the day. The obvious commercial competitor was the pub but that was, mostly, for the evening and drinking alcohol but has a completely different context for our lifestyle.

Coffee shops identified and capitalised on our need to socialise and have a sense of community. They also become information nodes with notice boards advertising everything from child minding to evening classes and car boot sales. We acquired a taste for coffee and the shops spread into bookstores, motorway service stations (thank goodness), department stores and McDonald’s, which has become the biggest seller of coffee in the UK.

There was, and is, a public space that has much in common with the psychology of the coffee shop – it’s called a public library. They are in high street locations, they are shared public spaces, we can meet our friends there, study and much more. So why haven’t coffee shops been put into public libraries?

Coffee shops took off in the UK because the market recognised the opportunities that changing consumer behaviours could provide. And while the public sector has considered the impact of consumer behaviour, it is too often in response to a problem, like obesity or smoking, rather than in anticipation of an opportunity or an issue.

Of course there are other barriers not least of which are institutional and cultural. There was no perceived need for libraries to open up as coffee shops and no competitive reason. But imagine if public authorities had a Group Marketing Director who considered all assets and how best to utilise them. That doesn’t mean simply selling them off. It would mean looking at how to maximise the benefits through partnerships and commercial arrangements that served the wider civic society. It could be franchising space to commercial coffee chains, it could even be offering books to coffee shops and using their loyalty cards instead of library tickets.

There are now overwhelming reasons why we have to think differently about the public-private interface and about the skills sets and knowledge that’s needed to ensure that the public domain can thrive. Commercialism, lateral thinking, brokering partnerships, consumer insight and understanding public accountability all have their part to play. Sounds like marketing to me. I think I’ll have another coffee.

Neil Martinson is director of news and PR at the COI

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