Understanding the self-serve coffee machine market

Around the world, convenience is now a key purchasing factor for many coffee consumers. Over the past few years, demand has been growing for coffee that is easy to prepare and high in quality – and we’ve subsequently seen a rapidly-growing market for self-serve coffee machines emerge.

It’s believed that the first coffee vending machine was invented in the US in the late 1940s, which ground and extracted hot coffee to order. Ready-to-drink coffee vending machines were also popular in Japan around the same time, and remain so today.

In the years since, these machines have developed to include more customisable options, such as a wider range of coffee beverages, a variety of milk options, and additional flavourings.

So where is this market heading as the demand for both convenience and quality continues to increase? I spoke to three industry professionals to find out more about the self-serve coffee market.

You may also like our article on how automation is shaping the coffee industry.

Costa coffee Express in a convenience store.

What are self-serve coffee machines?

Rudimentary self-serve food and beverage machines have been around for decades, but coffee vending machines are newer in comparison.

The Kwik Kafe is believed to be the first-ever hot coffee vending machine. It mixed instant coffee and hot water in a matter of seconds, and the inventors claimed it could prepare around 250,000 coffees per day.

Following on from its launch, coffee vending machines quickly became much more popular. It’s estimated that by 1955, there were 60,000 of them in the US alone.

In the 1970s, the first electronic self-service kiosk was introduced in the US, which included a touchscreen interface. Since then, touchscreen kiosks have been a staple of places such as supermarkets, fast food restaurants, airports, and train stations.

Not only did these machines become popular with consumers because of convenience, businesses also used them to reduce labour costs. For instance, the cost to check in a passenger at an airport using a self-service machine is around US 0.14 cents, compared to US $3 when using a staffed desk.

In the coffee industry, self-service machines have evolved in a similar way, and many now offer touchscreens and contactless payment.

Some of the more prominent brands in the UK coffee vending machine market include Pret A Manger, Costa Coffee, and Lavazza. The food and coffee-to-go chain Pret A Manger partnered with JDE Peet’s to launch the self-service solution Pret Express in a number of UK businesses, including convenience stores and petrol station forecourts.

In July 2021, Costa launched its Express Hot & Iced Drinks Machine in the UK, which the company claims is the world’s first self-serve coffee machine that can deliver both hot and cold coffee drinks. The machine provides more than 500 customised beverage options – showing the importance of customisation in the self-serve coffee market.

What are the differences between self-serve and super-automatic machines?

Like self-serve coffee machines, super-automatics largely automate much of the process of brewing coffee. With both machines, the user selects their order, before the machine grinds and extracts the coffee, as well as steaming and pouring the milk. 

However, super-automatics are more often used by baristas than consumers. Therefore, they are more common in coffee shops as opposed to other businesses, like convenience stores and hotels. 

Furthermore, the quality of super-automatic machines is increasing, and they are subsequently becoming more common in the coffee sector, including in specialty coffee. Major coffee chains, such as Costa Coffee and Pret A Manger, are using more super-automatic machines in their stores – as well as self-serve machines in other locations.

Woman using self-serve coffee machine in convenience store.

According to Allied Market Research, the global self-service technology market is predicted to be worth US $88.33 billion by 2030, which includes coffee vending machines.

Covid-19 has also undoubtedly driven growth in the self-service coffee machine sector. Pret A Manger trialled its vending machines as a result of the revenue loss it sustained during the pandemic, when the chain closed many of its stores. 

Gerassimos Sarafoglou is the UK & Ireland General Manager for Jacob Douwe Egberts, who partnered with Pret A Manger to roll out its Pret Express machines. He explains how advancements in technology have helped to differentiate further between vending and self-serve machines.

“The quality of the coffee and the technology of the machine establishes a clear differentiation between branded self-serve coffee machines and more traditional vending machines,” he tells me.

“Consumer expectations for on-the-go coffee have evolved, with consumers wanting more ‘barista-style’ options available at more locations,” he adds.

Thanks to continued innovation, these machines are also increasingly offering a growing range of customisation options, including different types of milks and additional syrups.

“Self-service coffee machines can also operate 24/7, which makes them more cost-effective for businesses who are looking for additional revenue streams,” Gerassimos says. 

With permanent operational hours, self-service machines are significantly more convenient for consumers than coffee shops – one of the biggest drivers of their popularity.

Why is self-serve such an important market?

Convenience has become essential for consumers in recent years. Retail Insight Network found that up to 97% of consumers have abandoned a purchase at some point because they didn’t consider the service to be quick enough, regardless of how affordable the product was. 

What’s more, more than 50% of the people surveyed stated that most of their purchases are influenced by convenience as opposed to any other purchasing factor – highlighting the need for increasing convenience with self-serve coffee machines. 

Adrian Deasy is the founder and CEO of the automated drive-thru chain Octane Coffee in Milwaukee, US. He explains why self-serve coffee machines can also be beneficial for business owners.

“Most repeat customer purchase details can be saved to sales systems, so that the service can be much quicker than more traditional methods,” he says. “This allows us to operate much faster than a typical drive-thru.”

Robotic barista arm serves coffees to customer.

A general move towards automation

As well as other technological advancements in the self-serve coffee machine market, we’ve seen an increase in fully automated coffee systems, such as barista robots. These systems generally operate in a similar way to vending machines: the customer orders via a touchscreen or button, before a machine prepares their drink.

However, the consumer experience of purchasing a coffee from a self-serve machine and a robot barista are somewhat different. When ordering from a robot barista coffee shop, watching the drink being prepared and served is a significant part of the appeal. 

Emanuele Rossetti is the CEO of Makr Shakr, which manufactures robotic arms to be used as bartenders and baristas.

“For many years, technology has been used to assist workers in the food and beverage industry, but the pandemic forced many brands to look towards automated solutions,” he explains.

Automation has a number of benefits for coffee professionals. For baristas, automatic tampers and steam wands can not only reduce repetitive strain injuries, also help make beverage quality more consistent. 

Adrian tells me how Octane is a fully automated drive-thru chain.

“We have no lobby, no bathrooms, and no employees on-site,” he says. “All of our drinks are prepared by robot baristas in 30 seconds or less, including contactless pickup.” 

Contactless payment options also experienced a major uptake following on from the pandemic, mainly for health and safety reasons.

Despite the growth of automation in the coffee industry, it’s unlikely that self-service coffee machines or similar automated technology will completely replace baristas any time soon. 

Although convenience is more important than ever for consumers, personal interactions with baristas are important for many – and a key part of the customer experience.

“There will always be the need for a human aspect to our business because there are many variables affecting the customer experience that we need to control, otherwise there is the risk of a bad customer experience,” Adrian tells me.

Close up of water running through a self-serve coffee machine

The future of self-service coffee machines

As it stands, many specialty coffee shops and roasters will not likely invest in self-service machines, as the investment will be difficult to justify for any business which operates under a “craft coffee” philosophy.

“Large upfront investments are required as reliable automation that functions on a 24/7 basis all year-round is not easy to design or implement,” Adrian advises.

As well as this, the craft of roasting and making coffee is typically a significant selling point for many specialty coffee brands. In theory, this means interactions between customers and baristas are likely to be more valuable for their businesses than the novelty of a self-serve machine.

Despite this, it’s no doubt that automation in general is set to grow in the coffee shop sector. Research from World Coffee Portal found that one-third of UK consumers were open to a fully-automated coffee shop experience – highlighting the importance of technology in the sector.

However, for other coffee, hospitality, or retail businesses looking to offer a wider range of product options, self-serve machines could be a viable option.

The same research found that more than 80% of people surveyed wanted to recreate their usual coffee shop order when using self-serve machines. This means demand for higher-quality options could increase over the next few years.

Ultimately, the more innovation there is in self-serve coffee machine technology, the more options will be available for consumers – with convenience at the forefront of growth.

Lavazza coffee vending machine

Self-service coffee machines have come a long way since the mid-1900s, with significant technological advancements like touchscreens and an increased variety of beverage options.

And with automation continuing to grow across the coffee industry, the potential for the coffee vending machine market to develop even further is significant.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how super-automatic espresso machines are evolving.

Photo credits: Makr Shakr

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