One of the mysteries of the current austerity is the seeming immunity from the economic squeeze, and even flourishing despite the doom and gloom, of chain coffee shops in London, and presumably elsewhere in Britain. I had thought that, as money is tight, one of the first things that people would do is to cut on the consumption of over-priced coffee with various methods of adulteration fancy customization at numerous outlets on the high street. If there is a small kitchen area in the office, for example, then my assumption was that people would make their own cups of tea and coffee, rather than go outside, have a quick cigarette (if they smoke), and go to a coffee shop to buy coffee.
Despite expressing my incredulity at coffee shops’ continued successes, I go to coffee shops when I’m in town. There are people like me, who do not work in offices, or tourists, who need to find a place to sit down somewhere comfortable in city centres. In essence, I’m paying for occupying a space for some time, and the coffee, which is often tolerable than agreeable, is incidental. Coffee shops usually provide free wi-fi access as well, so it gives me two things that I sometimes really need: somewhere to sit down and free internet connection. It is this combination that makes me cough up whatever the cheapest cup of coffee costs. Now that there is internet access, which may be free depending on your internet and mobile provider, in London Underground stations, it may be arguable that I should use the tube for this purpose: unless it’s rush hour, there is a decent chance of getting a seat, there’s internet, and it takes me somewhere else, whither I may need to go anyway. Alas, Circle Line no longer is a circular loop. But I digress.
If I’m right, that coffee shops’ business model is based, at least partially, on the provision of space and internet to other customers, then other places could emulate it. Well-known burger joints are doing that too, but given the grease and the constant smell of burning ground-up cattle (or horse), and the frequent presence of loutish teenagers who consider themselves demigods of the world, they may not be the first choice for many. I think there is a great opportunity for pubs in the mid-afternoon, after the lunch crowd, and before the after-work throng, to provide such a space. Pubs often serve drinkable coffee now and free internet. They often have more substantial tables and proper chairs in comparison to the coffee shops. For this reason, when there is a choice, I tend to go to a pub. The downside is the resident pub bore, who basically lives in that pub, even though no one knows how he – and it is always a he – manages to pay for his drinks, and takes upon himself to be interested on whatever goes on in the pub, like a tinpot despot, and makes pronouncements on his very profound thoughts.
Perhaps there is also the nature of coffee shops as a neutral, convenient, semi-public space that attracts people. May be I am reading too much to the fact that during afternoon, many coffee shops become a meeting place for mothers with babies and young children. It is not like meeting at someone’s house, which can be quite complicated and stressful, as well as requiring some planning, whereas meeting at a coffee shop can be spontaneous and relatively hassle-free. There is also sufficient space to accommodate prams and strollers inside. Coffee shops are providing space, and chance for people to talk, despite the chorus of crying babies and children darting about.
They are also good places to meet up generally, especially in rain and cold: here again, it is space that the coffee shops are selling. The cost of coffee is not particularly high, hence the barrier to impulse purchase is low, and the coffee shops are usually located at convenient places, for example near other amenities on the high street, or near tube stations and bus stops. Coffee is portable, so long as it is in a paper cup, so it’s unlikely to be wasted, though it’s not rare to see someone finishing a cup of coffee with the same gusto and wearing the same earnest expression with which a drunk consumes the last pint before being kicked out of the pub.
There are naturally other factors why people are drawn into coffee shops, and possibly more important than the passing trade represented by the urban refugees in need of space and internet, namely habit. Humans are creatures of habit, with a series of daily rituals and superstitions, and going to coffee shops to get coffee is something that’s part of our lives as brushing our teeth. Not buying the usual coffee at the usual place makes us feel odd or somewhat incomplete. It is weird how little things can ruin our mood and attitude for hours. People can become upset and remain in a terribly foul mood, if the barista makes a mistake, and are given the wrong type of coffee. As with any other habit or addiction, cumulatively it costs a lot. If someone purchases one cup of coffee at £2 a day for 230 days a year, then that amounts to £460. It may be cheaper than other addictions, but it still is not an insignificant amount, and in many cases, I think people who frequent coffee shops spend more than £2, because they visit them more than once a day, and they purchase other things, such as sandwiches and biscuits, in addition to coffee.
And finally, there are those who are addicted to coffee. I should know: I am one such addict. I probably could do without coffee for two or three days, but beyond that, the withdrawal symptoms manifest themselves, such as headaches. I feel sluggish and lethargic without my morning cup of coffee, which I think is a combination of physical and psychosomatic factors. It’s also a habit, as mentioned above. I am fine without further cups of coffee in the day, and I am trying to cut down to just one or two cups a day, and drink tea for the rest of the day. So I can imagine some people will need a cup of coffee during lunchtime or in the afternoon to pick themselves up.
As providers of space and internet, as well as satisfying the needs of human habit and ritual, and dealing to the addicts, coffee shops seem to have many different customer bases. Over the past decade and a half or so, we have become accustomed to the presence of coffee shops on our high streets. Indeed, high streets would not be high streets without coffee shops. But like many things that have become normal and part of our lives, almost unnoticed, that may change in an equally imperceptible way, and in the future, there may well be a book titled The strange death of the coffee shops gracing our online bookshops. That change does not seem to be happening now, and as far as I can see, which is merely a string random observations, and the recession isn’t causing that shift: it’s likely to be another cycle in lifestyle and habit of the people. What would that be? I have no idea.