I’ve just returned from visiting the coffee industry’s two major organizational conferences- coordinated through the National Coffee Association and the Specialty Coffee Association. Well attended and well executed, both conferences offered many networking opportunities and specific programs geared at both industry-specific issues and general operational challenges.

Although the focus of each conference is different (with the former focusing on the larger commercial trade and its major exporters, while the latter has an emphasis on smaller retailers/products for them), common trends emerge that we ignore at our peril:

1.      One of my long time salespersons recently told me, “It’s tough out there.” And while this is likely not a surprise to anyone, it should also not be a surprise that It’s going to get even tougher over the coming months and years. The big are getting bigger, the costs for everything (particularly labor and freight) will continue to rise (not accounting for higher interest rates which will also impact many components of the economy), and price increases, even when fully justified by cost increases beyond control, are increasingly challenging. Receivables are being increasingly extended. In spite of overall positive economic indicators, rental rates have squeezed out many long time independents and even long term chains that were not innovative.  In short, competition has never been harder. Expect more consolidation to come.

2.      Everyone is looking for the “next great idea” to differentiate themselves, but most of these paths are often attractive at first glance but impractical to execute. New products can be wonderful, but if the margin is not there to make the product workable, the idea will not succeed. And with all the cost factors highlighted above, it becomes ever more challenging to deliver a great idea to market. Only the largest players can afford to invest for an extended period without expectations of profitability and survive.

3.      The French have an old expression, “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” The greatest differentiator and path to success has always come from the level of service that one provides a customer. That degree of service can take many forms. It can be in the design of a customized product specifically for that customer. It can be in meeting an emergency need of a customer. It can be in correcting a mistake that someone made. It can be in producing products more cost effectively so that your customers can put the appropriate margin onto it to survive. It can be in creating consistent quality so their customers can easily rely on the brand and what it stands for. It can be in advising a customer on market conditions and becoming a partner (not economically, but in many other ways) to their success.  In short, when it comes to a good and valued customer, what services can you list that make a difference?

4.      Relationships matter, people matter, and how people depend on each other (even in the most simple interactions) can make all the difference. Yes, we all participate in many bids where someone looks at spreadsheets and spreadsheets alone. But far more commonly, things are decided because someone has gone the extra mile to make a lasting impression that “this is someone I want to deal with, someone I can count on, someone who has a track history of standing behind me.”

These trends seem obvious- but think about how much time we all spend looking for the “next pot of gold.” Instead, we might be better served by making sure our “old reliable pot” is doing a spectacular job.