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Drinking In Style

Drinking In Style

With mugs and tumblers, it's taste vs. looks
By Kennedy Smith

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One of these statements doesn’t jibe with the average consumer’s reasons for buying a particular coffee mug or tumbler:
a) I like the color.
b) The coffee tastes better out of this one.
c) It fits in my car’s cup holder.
d) It’s huge.
e) It has my favorite coffee shop’s logo on it.
    If you guessed (b), congratulations. In the world of coffee mugs and tumblers, it’s not about discerning tastes; it’s about function and style. Just take a quick look at the newest IKEA catalog: 16 different mugs and tumblers to choose from, some with handles, some with wide mouths, some small and dainty, even one called Älmhult that looks more like a tiny planter than something you’d pour coffee into. Yet, according to industry experts, people want strange, stylish and sometimes even barely functional models. Crema, aroma, aftertaste: all afterthoughts.
    Of course, the cardinal rule for succeeding in the coffee business is to brew a darn good cup, but beyond that, customers want to feel hip when they’re drinking, and they want to leave with a cool tumbler to prove it. Thus, the mugs you choose for in-store use aren’t necessarily the ones your customer wants to buy.

    What makes a good in-house mug? A few things, says Megan Graham, sales manager at Concepts Plus, a designer and wholesaler of mugs and tumblers. “Heat retention, the durability, aesthetics and affordability are the main factors,” Graham says. “Most coffee shops in the United States use ceramic because it works and you can find it easily.” A plain ceramic mug with accompanying saucer is an obvious choice. It’s like the plain white tee or the little black dress: You can’t go wrong. Ceramic demitasse cups and saucers ranging from $3 to $10 a piece are easy to find through online wholesalers.
    For authentic demitasses, Italian porcelain is the way to go. Major manufacturers include IPA, ACF, Ancap and Nuova Point. Nuova Point sells directly to customers and is also carried by; its cups go for about $5 to $15. ACF makes La Marzocco cups and can be found on Italianissimo is the U.S. distributor for Ancap. IPA cups are hard to find in the States, but illy fashions its cups after Italian brands, and these (although often branded with its red–and-white logo, and expensive compared to wholesalers’ prices) are widely available.
    Functional and affordable mugs work well in the store, but customers who are ready to take the leap and buy a tumbler want more.

    “Ceramics are used in-house, so travel mugs are the sellers,” says Aaron Daywitt, owner of, a Fort Collins, Colo.-based mug and tumbler seller. “Definitely bright colors are in: pinks, pastels and brights.” Daywitt has seen darker colors like navy blue, black and some shades of green fall off the radar in the past few years, with kitschy, throwback colors reminiscent of Fiestaware gaining popularity.
    The switch from dark to light may be the result of backlash against national coffee chains’ signature colors, says Brooke Billadeau of coffee products manufacturer Planetary Design. Green relates to Starbucks and brick red is reminiscent of Tully’s, while Peet’s is laden with dark browns.
    Coffeehouses that successfully separate themselves from the big guys by selling their own merchandise are capturing a new look. And large retailers are quick to catch on to the trends as well. “Coffee mug retailers are actually going out and looking at the fashion trends to get colors,” says Graham. “They’re watching style Web sites, finding hot colors for the upcoming season and designing based on that. The size and shape of a mug doesn’t change. What changes are the colors.”
    Daywitt’s current best-selling tumbler is the Maui Fusion. It has an hourglass shape with stainless-steel patina on the lower portion and a bright-colored finish on the upper half. It fits in drink holders, has a turnstile lid, and comes in a several bright, retro colors like lime green and bright orange. “People wanted to see more color in their kitchen,” Billadeau says. “People got excited about having color in their day-to-day lives.” But as larger brands move toward brighter colors, the backlash goes backward, and Billadeau predicts a movement back toward muted colors.    
    Shifting from color to substance, the consensus among retailers large and small is that people love stainless steel because of its durability and heat retention. There has been talk of acrylics and plastics potentially causing illness, says Daywitt, so people stick to stainless. Stainless steel also doesn’t retain any smell or taste like plastic can. And it’s not surprising that in the world of stainless, people want their tumblers big. After all, “This is America, and in America, we like everything bigger,” Graham says.
    The trend also seems to be headed toward handle-less tumblers that fit in a vehicle’s cup holder. Planetary Design started out with a 12-ounce tumbler without a handle, along with a 16–ounce (the most popular size among many manufacturers) tumbler with a handle. The 12-ounce tumbler outsold its bigger counterpart two-to-one, Billadeau says. The company is planning on introducing a 20-ounce tumbler without a handle and will remove the handle from its 16-ounce product.

An exception to the design-trumps-taste theory is in the world of tea. There’s a general consensus among the tea-drinking community that the cup can make or break a good steep. Tea lovers prefer ceramic or glass mugs, says Megan Graham of Concepts Plus. Any argument about taste really
comes down to stainless versus ceramic or glass, not ceramic versus china or ceramic versus porcelain, she says.

    In the coffee world, being eco-friendly naturally means choosing the tumbler over the paper cup. Selling tumblers in-house may also save coffee shops a bit of money, says Amy Stodghill, a sustainability consultant in New York. “By bringing your own, you’re actually saving businesses money since you’re not using their stock of paper cups. Many places will offer a 10-cent discount. (Others may not, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.) Oh, and bringing your own mug will also make you more memorable to your barista/coffee server.”
    But the friendliest of all eco-friendly mugs might just be the Biodegradable Corn Plastic Coffee Mug by NatureAd. The 10.5-ounce mugs are made from 100-percent biodegradable corn plastic, grown and manufactured in the United States. Inks used for imprinting logos are also lead-free. The downside to using these in-house is that they are recommended for hand-washing only. “They’re selling,” says Daywitt, “but not much. In general, the completely biodegradable mugs are more promotional than anything, but they are gaining traction in the last year or two.”
    Whether a shop decides to sell tumblers or corn mugs, “the main thing is that you’re not throwing away the plastic or paper cup every time you drink a cup of coffee,” Daywitt says.

    If caffeine is all about creating a physical response, then branding is all about creating an emotional response. “It’s about how you feel when you drink out of whatever you decide to drink out of,” Graham says.
    The Grocery Manufacturers of America has found that 49 percent of consumers are loyal to brands of food and beverages, indicating that a brand is the first or second most important factor in determining their purchases. Peers play a major role in consumers’ relationships with any particular brand, the GMA notes. In an unprompted, open-ended question, 36 percent of respondents said they currently use a particular product because their family or friends use it.
    And with coffee, branding is of the utmost importance. A study by the International Trade Centre, an international organization that researches enterprise-oriented aspects of trade, indicates that the difference between mainstream and high-quality coffees is that the former are freely available. For the roaster, brand loyalty means ensuring that consumers don’t switch to competing brands that offer similar experiences and are freely available within the same price range.
    You don’t need a huge budget to start stamping your logo on mugs and tumblers; an initial investment of $500 and $1,000 can get you between 150 and 200 mugs or tumblers. Daywitt suggests a mark-up of about 50 percent—if the item costs you $6, sell it for $12. “You’re making money and getting free advertising,” he says. “A lot of people are picking the coffee up before they go to work, so there’s a huge amount of extra exposure throughout the day and outside the coffee shop.”

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