There’s no such thing as a free takeaway coffee

There’s no such thing as a free takeaway coffee

You’re happy to pay for Netflix. You might be considering reactivating your gym membership. And I’m hoping you subscribe to the Financial Times.

But can the subscription economy translate to our coffee drinking habits?

Office workers are slowly returning to the City of London (I’m one of them) and coffee shops closed under lockdown are now opening up again.

To tempt us back into our former latte guzzling habits, many chains are offering coffee subscriptions. Pay a set amount of money each month, and — within reason — you can drink as much coffee as you like.

But are any of the deals on offer worthwhile? Armed with a notepad and a reusable cup, I caffeinated myself into a money-saving frenzy this week attempting to find out.

The good news is, it’s a buyers’ market, with plenty of deals and discounts on offer, which I’ve detailed below. Chains know that consumer behaviour has shifted dramatically under lockdown, and hope that subscription offers can persuade us to break with our old loyalties and try something new.

They’re also using these deals to promote new ways of buying coffee. Ordering in advance online for pick up in person is more efficient, especially when many chains are struggling to recruit staff. It also limits the time we spend queueing — and helps prevent mistakes when ordering.

“Before Covid, it was difficult to distinguish between someone ordering a hot latte, or an oat latte,” says Spencer Craig, chief executive and co-founder of Pure, the London-based chain. “Add in face masks and Perspex screens, and it becomes like a Monty Python sketch.”

Of course, takeaway coffee is the first thing most personal finance experts advise you to drop if you’re trying to save money. Whether the deals below are worthwhile will depend on your consumption habits, the proximity of a given store and a few other factors besides.

As a coffee lover, I’m not only thinking of the cash savings, but the cost to the planet. Many coffee shops stopped accepting reusable cups under Covid, but the majority now accept them again (Pret and Pure offer a 50p discount, Leon 45p, Costa and Starbucks 25p). If you’re a moderate coffee drinker and have invested in your own cup, this could be cost-effective (although it’s not possible to use reusable cups for most “order ahead” services).

After the challenges of lockdown, coffee shops will cherish any recurring revenue they can generate from subscriptions. However, you should also be aware of the role your data is playing in these digital transactions.

Jack Chong, the Oxford university student and tech start-up founder who penned a fantastically geeky analysis of the Pret subscription offer, has already cancelled his trial. “Think of all the purchase data and location data you’re giving away,” he told me over a (virtual) cup of coffee this week. He fears push notifications when you walk past a store will be the inevitable next step: “We’d love you to come back — have a sandwich on us!”

Bearing all of this in mind, you can savour my guide to the latest deals in less than the time it takes to drink a coffee.

Pret A Manger

Pret was the first to launch a coffee subscription deal. Pay £20 a month (first month free) and you can enjoy “endless” hot drinks when you scan the app’s QR code in store. It’s limited to one drink per customer per 30 minutes, and no more than five a day.

Is it worth it? The average price of a barista-made coffee in the FT’s nearest Pret is £2.75. If you’re the kind of person who usually drinks more than two coffees per week, then yes. But if you’re a tea drinker (£1.99) or a hybrid worker with no Pret near your home office, it could be less cost-effective.

The deal only applies to drinks, and maximum value extraction requires several visits per day. So you also risk falling foul of ‘the Pret Tax’. This term, beloved of my How to Spend It editing colleague Jo Ellison, is the risk of spending more money on snacks than you are saving on the coffee.

However, Pret still boasts the cheapest deal for reusable fans — a filter coffee in your own cup for 49 pence. But you’d have to drink a nerve-jangling 41 of those every month to make the £20 subscription pay.

Leon

Snapped up by EG Group in a £100m deal last month, if there’s a Leon close to your office, its “unlimited coffee” deal could offer better value.

For £15 a month, you can sign up to ordering coffees in advance for collection — and you can get up to £7 worth free per order. This means you could get up to three coffees per visit (limited to 75 coffees across a 30-day period).

To max out the benefits, you could treat a colleague and rapidly become the most popular person in the office — or bring one back for the boss and become the biggest creep. Who knows — that £15 sunk investment cost could even net a pay rise.

Pure

One business taking a different approach is Pure, which has 20 outlets in central London and is 49 per cent owned by Whitbread.

Its Pure + More digital membership costs £4.99 per month (first month free) and entitles you to 20 per cent off everything, including food. I highly recommend the breakfast toasties. Last week, members also got a free coffee. Next week, they will be entitled to a free salad worth £6.99.

Like Leon, you have to order in advance. If you buy coffee and lunch three times a week, Pure reckons customers could save £200 net over a year.

Greggs

You may scoff — but a flat white, Americano or cappuccino from Greggs can cost half the price of some big chains, and you get loyalty points via the Greggs Rewards app.

Out of six categories of products, including hot drinks, if you buy nine, the tenth is free.

You have to order in advance, but judging by the collection queue, Greggs is easily the most popular spot on Cheapside right now.

Other chains

Starbucks, Costa and several others continue to offer loyalty points that can be traded for free drinks or other items. The apps have moved on from the days of card stamps — but only just. Jack Chong predicts more brands will offer subscriptions if the model takes off.

Under lockdown, getting ground coffee delivered to your home has also proved popular (Caffè Nero offers a personalised subscription by post, and its loyalty points apply to online orders).

Independents

I’ve been supporting our local independent coffee shops while working from home. As well as backing a small business, a coffee run breaks up the day and is a good way of meeting up with local friends and colleagues.

For me, buying one very good coffee as a treat is a better investment than drinking so many to make a deal worthwhile that you end up typing your articles on the ceiling.

On a quick stroll to see when the Carter Lane Coffee House near the FT’s office had reopened, I noticed that the pub nearby was offering half-price draught beer all day on Mondays. That, I fear, is a whole other column.

Claer Barrett is the FT’s consumer editor: claer.barrett@ft.com; Twitter @Claerb; Instagram @Claerb


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