From Gen Z and beyond, explore emerging markets and micro shifts in youth consumer behaviour
With a major UK brand refusing to serve coffee to some teens, could the high street welcome a forward-looking café for young people?
If a barista refuses to serve teens, they risk driving whole friendship groups away, as well as their collective future custom.
From independent cafés capturing local footfall to global brands infiltrating new markets, both the number and type of consumers chasing a caffeine kick is growing. But one particular audience is helping to drive this growth – teenagers.
According to the National Coffee Association USA, while the frequency of daily coffee consumption has grown for all age groups, the most robust increase has occurred among teenagers aged 13–18, whose daily consumption rose by 14 percentage points between 2014 and 2017. Today, nearly four in 10 (37%) of American teens drink coffee daily, according to the NCA’s research.
In the UK, much attention has been paid to teenage caffeine consumption, albeit in relation to energy drinks. In 2018, several major UK supermarkets outlined plans to stop selling certain caffeinated energy drinks to under-16s, and the UK government is running an enquiry into their health impact.
It was interesting to witness, then, towards the end of 2018, a decision by Europe’s largest coffee chain Costa Coffee to roll out a policy in which teenagers under the age of 16 could be asked for ID or otherwise barred from buying caffeinated products in its cafés.
Arguably, Costa is taking a bold yet principled position when it comes to young people consuming caffeine and the negative impact it could have on their health, anxiety and even their sleep. In a statement, the company said: ‘We do not encourage the sale of caffeine to children under 16,’ adding that its advertising is not targeted at teens, nor can a customer under the age of 16 apply for one of its loyalty cards.
So far, so positive. Yet, Costa – a company with more than 2,400 UK stores, many in close proximity to the high streets, stations and malls that teens typically frequent – also crucially outlined: ‘It is at a store’s discretion to question a customer’s age if they have any concerns.’
It's here that I wonder whether, if stores or baristas choose to exercise this rule, they risk driving whole friendship groups away, as well as their collective future custom. It also feels at odds with Costa’s Chatty Café initiative, designed to boost interactions in its stores. As far as mixed messages go, is Costa taking the (complimentary) biscuit?
Of course, for some customers, fewer teenagers could bring light relief: a calmer environment for work, reading or a coffee with old friends. We all know that a gaggle of (potentially caffeinated) teens can also equal rowdy chatter. But it throws a bigger question into the mix: where will these teens go instead?
Coffee or not, a youth-focused café is a rarity on our high streets.
Search online, and you'll find very little by way of cafés that specifically cater for young people looking for somewhere to socialise, aside from sugar-laden ice cream or dessert parlours. Coffee or not, a youth-focused café is a rarity on our high streets. And if something close to one does exist, it’s often more akin to a youth club, with a greater focus on personal or educational development.
In my opinion, there is vast potential for such teen-friendly spaces. It’s something we’ve already seen taking place in retail, with stores such as L’Insane and The Phluid Project positioning themselves as community destinations for young people.
Whether Costa Coffee or another savvy brand steps up, there is an opportunity not to prohibit teens from exploring caffeinated drinks, but to welcome them to explore coffee culture, enjoy interesting, nourishing and creative food and drink, in surroundings that allow them to relax, work, hang out, and ultimately feel welcome.