The Lab

Creating & Defining A New Sense of Normalcy & Ritual For Our Customers

“We worship at the altar of our coffee shops every day, treating that morning cup of caffeine like a sacred, not-to-be-missed ritual.” – zagat, coffee survey 2014

Coffee is almost as consistent in people’s lives as brushing their teeth.  They are most likely not going to stop drinking coffee because of the pandemic.  People’s coffee and tea rituals are comforting to them. They reinforce some sense of normalcy and routine and potentially evoke memories of other comforting experiences or times. 

“You never want to let a good crisis go to waste… Crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that we could not do before…” Rahm Emanuel after the 2008 economic meltdown

What is going on is absolutely a crisis beyond anything I could imagine, but regardless, I stand by this quote.  Any crisis, no matter how big, allows us to reevaluate what we are doing and improve upon it.  It shakes things up, potentially rattles everyone to their core, and opens the door for change – for new rituals and habits to be developed. 

In this post we will explore and analyze how habits are formed and how we can reinforce the ones we have with our current customers, reform them for customers we have lost and potentially create them in new customers…

An Overview of how habits are formed:

Ever notice how people seem to follow the same system every day in a café?  They enter, they wait on line, maybe they pull out their phone to check emails while waiting or chat with the barista.  They know it’s time to order so they probably have their wallet out, they are cued by the line and the POS even before they get there.  And magically they walk to where the espresso machine is to wait for their drink.  There probably is no sign to tell them to do that.  They have developed that habit from the reward of getting their drink quickly and maybe some pleasant chatter with the person making their drink.  All of these little things: waiting in line, pulling out one’s wallet, going to the right place to pick up a drink are all part of a habit loop with many cues and rewards.  This habit loop is communally reinforced by most coffee shops.  We all fall into these loops, or habits over and over again in small and big ways.. I mean how many times have you gone on your phone and ended up in the instagram, facebook, email loop today? 

The Basal Ganglia, a small golf-ball structure in the center of our brain is responsible for this.  It stores our habits. These habits or loops are broken down into 4 sections:

Developing habits is even further rewarded by allowing the rest of our brain to rest.  Once the habit is created, our brain no longer has to make (or think about) the series of decisions to get to the reward.  The Basal Ganglia basically converts sequences of events into automatic routine – like brushing our teeth when we wake up.  This is known as “chunking” and these can be small or large sequences. It takes a great deal of work though to convert an old habit into a new one.

Let’s think very basically:  Someone smokes cigarettes.  Every morning they wake up feeling yucky, tired, and cranky anticipating the day, so they smoke a cigarette. Now, due to nicotine, they feel ready for the day and the earlier feelings have subsided. Statistics prove that people are more successful quitting if any or all of the following are true:
a)There was a substitution with either a nicotine replacement or a positive habit like running
b)There is a major change of overall routine, in which the cues are different.. like someone takes the subway to work instead of getting in their car.   
c)If they have support and guidance.

Right now, people’s habits, routines, cues are all over the place.  They aren’t driving into work, they don’t see the same people, places aren’t open, and so on.  People like their habits.  They come with rewards (like coffee!) and their brains don’t have to work so hard.  They had habits, they came to your shop every day or every week to buy the same thing, see the same people, but now things are all mixed up. Without these habits, our brains expend much more energy – is anybody else having trouble concentrating these days?

Even though nothing is very stable at the moment, the habit of coffee can be. It is already one of most people’s favorite habits!

Although visiting the corner café might not look like or feel like the same habit they had. It can be a newly developed habit. You also now have a  whole potential grouping of people who didn’t have your shop on their prior route, but maybe it can be now!  This is an OPPORTUNITY!

So how do we do this…

Developing a New Habit/Ritual for our Customers:

1.Identify The Routine (The Cues, The Habits & The Rewards):

Identify what your people are doing right now.  Good news! facebook and Instagram are designed for this. You can voyeur away or just ask your audience (suggestion – reward them for their responses.) We want to know things like how they are having their coffee these days, are they working from home or not?  How and where are they going when they go out?

Try to identify what is motivating them to do these things?  Do they enjoy the ritual of brewing coffee at home now to start their day?  Do they always go to the same store to buy groceries?  Are they trying to support local businesses? Or are they trying to hide from the world?  Are they seeking a connection with others?

What sort of things are rewarding these people?  Are they excited about online responses/reposts? Notes with packages they are receiving in the mail?  Helping first responders? Chatting with people?  Cute animal pictures? 

2. Experiment With Rewards:

NEW REALITY – NEW REWARDS:  Those “buy nine get the tenth drink on us” punch cards aren’t  going to cut it.  That would mean leaving the house like ten whole times!  Good coffee as a reward? Well that helps, but I’m sorry to say there is a lot of good coffee available online these days.  But, if you have figured out the current habits of folks, their cues and their rewards – you should already have some ideas.  Throw some against the wall and see what sticks! Posting the same ‘Free Delivery’ a thousand times might work, but if it didn’t work the first 100 times, maybe experiment with some creative other ideas? 

-Cross-promote with another local business?

-Get your dinner and your coffee delivered for free all in 1 shot?

-Donate a $1 from every purchase to support something important?  

-Include a fun 25 cent toy and a hand-written card with each package? 

Rewards force people to have a momentary awareness for what they are feeling and/or thinking and reinforces some attention and awareness to the process, sometimes even creates a reminder for later.

3. Isolate The Cues:

Locations, times, emotional states, other people, any immediate preceding action.  Target times of day, content, or emotions.  Pay attention to the times of day that people go out…

-Is it senior hour at the local grocery store?

-Is it midday at work, when people are losing motivation? 

-When are you getting the most opens on your email blasts or likes on social media? What is going on around that time of day? 

Speculate what these people are doing?  Ask the people that are currently in the habit of frequent purchasing. What is true for them may be true for others! Experiment here to.  Try marketing or reaching your customers at different times and in different key moments of their day.

4. Have A Plan:

Congrats you have figured out some of your customers and/or potential customers habit loops or rituals.  Now, to reinforce these cues and rituals…

Your customers are all out of loop.  Their schedules have all changed, that original trigger and subsequent cues to get coffee have moved around and changed.  The cues on your website or physical location have probably changed too. Even the faces of your staff are cues, and now they may be covered with masks or bandanas.  That original trigger is there – people need/want coffee regardless of what’s going on. Although, they are thrown off their ritual or habit loop by all the cues being different.  It is uncomfortable. 

Like driving home and suddenly being detoured on a ton of weird side-roads you are unfamiliar with, and you know what’s worse? When you are detoured and there’s like only one sign every 5 miles that you are going the right way. You may even pause to reassess whether you should continue this way home. 

So make sure there are signs, new cues, reinforcing the new ritual, rewarding people along the way.  These mini-rewards are just the comfort that “the coffee is coming – I am doing the right thing.” They lead up to the big reward of amazing coffee and the loop is then cemented by the final NEW REWARD of your choosing.

And that’s it! You have created a new ‘normal’ or ‘ritual/habit’ for people, it’s important to continually reinforce this.  Move forward with releases of new coffees and products, add other rewards.  Stay consistent with your cues! You have just given your customers a little bit of normalcy in their lives and helped to sustain your business, so there continues to be this normalcy.

Zoey Thorson

Coffee Pro/Veteran Educator. Over 10+ years of teaching a wide variety of coffee disciplines to a diverse student base around the world. Q-Grader and SCA Authorized Specialty Trainer. In 2019 Zoey became the Director of Education for The Lab by Royal NY. Zoey is friendly, approachable and informative with a vast knowledge base...come take a class at The Lab and see for yourself.