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Paul Haworth

Coffee subscriptions by mail are a new trend

As a home coffee craftsperson, you are probably aware of the coffee bean subscription services that have recently hit the market. Some of these services are merely exponents of roasteries, offering a service which brings the beans to the customers' doors on a regular basis, with an initial upfront expense. Others are third party buyers who resell a variety of beans sourced from all over the country. Some of these third parties will build curated samplers or 'boxes' which ship regularly to provide the customer with a spectrum of specialty coffee, while others focus exclusively on helping the consumer find coffees they love and provide a consistent conduit for those beans. The third party services, which we will be focusing on here, all aim to connect roasters with consumers that otherwise would not have known about them.

Advantages of subscription services

These services have one thing in common: they all ship directly to your home. The appeal of receiving a package in the mail is hard to deny. Couple this with some of the fantastic branding these folks have developed and it becomes pretty easy to see the overall appeal. Every shipment is like a coffee Christmas, and the frequency generally ensures a fresh proximity to roast date as well. Many services are also experimenting with more flexible bag sizing, to cater to an individual's rate of consumption.

This model provides exposure to top-notch roasteries for those living in communities that may be lacking a competitive coffee market. By presenting purveyors alongside each other, beans can be categorized in different ways (i.e. global distribution of farms, roast degree, price) and presented in a 'one-stop-shopping' or 'coffee community' format. The samplers also offer a very novel and cost effective way for consumers to learn more about what they prefer.

Challenges of subscription services

The first challenge is the cost of shipping. Price breaks exist when certain volume goals are achieved, making it an interesting numbers game. Navigating the tension between acquiring as many subscribers as possible and maintaining certain specialty standards is largely what ends up determining a subscription service's brand identity.

The second challenge is maintaining subscribers. In the same way that green buyers (for roasteries) must decide whether there is more value working with an importer or buying directly from a farmer, the consumer needs a reason to buy from a multi-roaster platform instead of buying coffee directly from the roasteries the subscription service has helped them discover. The way a particular subscription service defines this 'added value' will determine their brand longevity. The only other option is an acceptance that their services are a sort of 'coffee dating service' with a customer base 'half-life' that requires regular rebuilding.

Buying locally versus national sourcing

The trend to support local economy is complicated when it comes to coffee. Aside from Hawaiian Kona, no coffee is actually grown in the US, which means that we are hardly able to buy 'locally.' Most of us prefer localized craft and commerce when possible but there are huge gaps in the specialty coffee industry that often prevents this ideal. One of the gaps subscription services fill is the lack of specialty coffee awareness in less cosmopolitan communities.

As we progress, it might be more common to find local roasteries with high standards all across the country. It might become the norm to see a specialty roastery in every neighborhood, who knows? The coffee roasting community is in a continuing season of transparency and demand always leads to someone willing to supply what is requested. These factors could lead to a coffee craft renaissance, allowing for fewer mail services and more neighborhood roasteries. For now, the subscription services are here to help us connect the dots.