Atmospherics: Delivering More than a Cup


By Emma Sage

Scientifically speaking, drinking a cup of coffee is what is called a multimodal sensory experience. This means that it’s the interaction of our five senses, and all the external factors influencing them (called “multisensory interactions”), which underlie our perception of flavor (Auvray and Spence 2008). There is also research (and lots of anecdotal evidence from the coffee industry) to support the notion that the coffee retail environment is not just about the beverage, but also about the experience (Tumanan and Lansangan 2012). Many of us have heard the phrase, “the third place,” which was coined by Ray Oldenburg to describe a public place where a person experiences a social network other than their home and work (Oldenburg 1989). Coffeehouses have been an influential such “third place” for many generations, and have played an important role in the social and political history of modern civilizations (Pendergrast 2010). Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that the coffeehouse, with its physical as well as intangible properties, has a complicated influence over those who enter. It turns out that in retail environments, including our coffee-selling establishments, there is a whole category of influence that has power over your customers. That’s right: the atmosphere of a cafe.

An ample body of scientific evidence exists to support what all coffee retailers already intuitively know: ambiance affects customer behavior. Understanding customer behavior is critical to their business as it pertains to how much money customers will spend, how likely they are to stay and sit (and need more coffee), whether they will return another day, or if they’ll tell their friends about it. This is why multiple coffee retail environments have been developed to play to different customer demographics and desires. It will come as no surprise to us as members of the coffee industry that, in cases of sensory or preference studies, scientific methods haven’t been able to accurately predict customer behaviors in a laboratory setting. Of course, this is because the environment around us—those big cozy chairs, that sleek espresso bar, our individual histories, the day’s context—affects our personal experience with our food or beverages.

Ambiance is a loosely defined term which encompasses numerous factors, such as social and physical surroundings, sound, temperature, smell, color of the environment, duration, distractions, food and beverage color, temperature, smell, and time of consumption (Stroebele and De Castro 2004). Some research has actually suggested that in certain situations, the ambiance of a location can be more important than the product (Kotler 1973). Those of you who are coffee retailers, who have found your place in a community and support your customers with a variety of services in addition to coffee, likely appreciate this concept. We all know customers who visit cafes and purchase food, tea, or other beverages. Given the history of the cafe as a third place, it is a reasonable conclusion that our coffee retail environments are selling a specific atmosphere.


In fact, there is a whole category of scientific research on the “atmospherics” of retail environments, which has been studied for over forty years (Turley and Milliman 2000; Kotler 1973). The field covers five basic categories: exterior, interior, layout and design, point of purchase and decoration, and human variables. All of them influence the customer in their own particular ways. Exterior factors include the storefront, any signage or marquees, entrances, display windows, the general architectural style, color, and even availability of parking. Research on this topic is limited, but has shown that individuals are highly variable and subject to their own preferences. Interior factors in a retail location are those such as flooring, lighting, product displays, temperature, cleanliness, music, odors or aromas, and lighting. Layout and design encompasses fixtures, product placement, and allocation of floor space. Each of these factors has been shown to influence sales, perceived time spent in store and processing time. The use of color affects purchasing rates, consumer feeling, image, and retail sales (Turley and Milliman 2000). Layout and design include fixtures, product placement, and allocation of floor space and departments. Point-of-purchase and decoration include product displays, shelving, posters, signage, and wall decorations. The relationship between variables such as placement, purpose, and prominence of these items with sales is complex (Turley and Milliman 2000).

These effects extend beyond just the visual senses. Music, too, has been frequently studied. It appears the type of music played in a store can have an impact on sales, traffic flow, and perception of the actual time spent in the environment (Turley and Milliman 2000; Oakes 2000). However, this changes with the age of the shopper, music preference, and volume level. It is an established theory that our culture, past experiences, and childhood memories influence our preferences and individual palates (Einstein and Hornstein 1970; Pangborn and others 1988), and it is likely that this extends to all preferences.

And then there are the intangibles. Studies of unplanned purchasing have noted that in environments that do not impose time pressure on consumers, individuals make more purchases (Park and others 1989). Of course, there are also important human interaction variables that can influence consumer perception and purchasing decisions, including the appearance of employees, how crowded consumers perceive the store to be, and even the characteristics of fellow consumers. For example, one study on this topic found that personnel wearing aprons were perceived as providing a higher quality of service than those who were not (Baker and others 1994). After all of the above, when a customer ultimately receives the beverage or food item, its presentation and sensory qualities also influence their future choices and purchasing behaviors (Stroebele and De Castro 2004).

However, don’t underestimate the influence of store design on your customers’ behavior. One study found that retail coffee shop design characteristics were 53% correlated with the level of customers’ emotional attachment to the establishment (Tumanan and Lansangan 2012). It doesn’t tell us what sort of design they were attached to, but many in our industry have instinctively placed a lot of emphasis on such details for this reason. A lively atmosphere, a regular customer base, and the feeling of a “home away from home” were also highly correlated with customers’ emotional attachment. We might like to think it’s solely about our finely-roasted, expertly-poured specialty coffee, but the data shows there is much more to it. The same study found that consumers’ emotional connection to a cafe was just 48% correlated with the attributes of the product it served. This means that the studied customer’s emotional connection was over half determined by other things, including ambiance.

There is no silver bullet for ensuring customer loyalty or increasing purchasing habits. Ultimately, the above information should inspire all of us to define our place within a community of customers, and to do our best to create a welcoming, comfortable environment based on what that community wants in a coffee shop. Let us remember our place in history as community hubs, and remind ourselves that there is room for a variety of coffee-shop models in the specialty coffee experience. The industry has proven this over the past thirty years by establishing a variety of new cafe models of varying sizes, including the traditional cafe, the coffee-by-day-alcohol-by-night boîte, kiosks, pop-ups, standing-room-only bars, drive-thru windows, and line-out-the-door shops focused on delivery and to-go service. As a cafe owner considers their retail strategy, with every build-out or remodel, they must keep in mind the five areas that make up ambiance and how they work together to communicate to the core customer base. When you consider your customers and their preferences, why not include the five atmospheric categories?


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Emma Sage is the coffee science manager for SCAA. Be- fore moving into the coffee industry, she completed degrees in ecology and botany, and dabbled in the wine industry. She enjoys learning all there is to know about the science of coffee (and more importantly, sharing it with you).