Prices may be high but consumers still want their coffee

Many economists and market watchers expected the United States to be in a recession at this point but the Federal Reserve has been able to hold it off. Yet, American consumers remain in a funk. A poll from Bankrate in late 2023 showed that a majority of Americans believe we are currently in a recession, leading some to use the term ‘silent recession’. Why? Because although inflation is down, prices are not: prices are still much higher than they used to be, frustrating consumers.

But the rising cost of goods is not stopping Americans from drinking their daily cup of coffee—whether they prepare it at home or purchase it a coffee shop. US coffee sales at retail alone in 2023 hit US $18.9 billion – 18% of the global total – making the US the world’s largest coffee market (US #1 in coffee spend while is Brazil #1 in consumption), said Matthew Barry, insight manager food & beverage, Euromonitor International, during the National Coffee Association’s (NCA) recent ‘US Coffee Outlook 2024’ webinar.

However, the US is very tilted to foodservice coffee with Americans spending more than twice in that channel than they do at retail. The coffee shop segment continues to grow amid the turmoil, explained Barry. “A major shift is taking place towards a more tech-driven, to-go model de-emphasising the human aspect while ‘permissible indulgence’ spending cushions the sector against economic trouble.”

At retail, ready-to-drink (RTD) coffee remains the top performer in terms of growth, which has slowed but still leads. Pods is the next largest category, which Barry noted is doing well in the US but struggling in Europe, followed by standard ground and whole beans (the smallest category but a solid performer). Despite the availability of higher quality instant and pioneers of specialty coffee entering the category, soluble coffee’s performance is still subpar and sales are expected to decline in the US in 2024.

E-commerce has been a particular bright spot for the coffee industry category, with Barry saying that “a slowing segment overall has not damaged coffee. Sales were up 24% for the first three quarters of 2023 over the same period in 2022.”

Although consumers may not be able to live without their daily small indulgence, coffee is not immune to the effects of higher prices. According to Barry, steep prices are narrowing the window for premiumisation. “Americans are showing less interest in paying for virtually any sort of value-added attribute.” This is affecting areas like organic, environmentally friendly and sustainably produced products.

While American consumers may not be willing to pay for just any ‘value-added attribute’, they will for those will health claims so the most advantageous way to premiumisation is through functionality. “Health remains a spending priority even with consumer pullback,” shared Barry, adding, “functional coffees should be able to benefit from this. Energy, digestive health, and weight management should see especially interesting [growth] in 2024.”

Another growth area is digestive health as the microbiome is better understood. “Particularly important will be emerging understanding of the microbiome’s [probiotics] effect on wider health such as the ‘gut-brain axis’,” he commented.

Experts have warned that 2024 will be hottest year in history, surpassing 2023 which was the hottest to date, so climate will be top of mind with consumers. However, “consumer willingness to spend on sustainability is not increasing,” Barry explained, adding, “the pressures from years of inflation have led fewer consumers to be willing to spend on more sustainable products.”

He said that sustainability is becoming about adaptation rather than consumer appeal, that is, more of a supply chain interest area rather than a way to appeal to consumers (a focus on decreasing supply chains, water availability, etc.).

So, to sum up the coffee outlook for this year [per the NCA/Euromonitor International — I am curious if others agree or have a different opinion]: although high prices will keep consumers pessimistic thereby rendering premiumisation more difficult, the US coffee market is set to have a good 2024 particularly from growth in coffee shops spending, RTD coffee and functional coffees.

Related content

Leave a reply

Tea & Coffee Trade Journal