Food quality is a multi-dimensional concept comprising both objective and subjective components. Quality as defined from an industry perspective usually relies on different instrumental assessment and on ratings of “experts” which may not necessarily align with consumers’ perception of quality. The purpose of this paper is to deal with consumers perceptions of intrinsic quality in coffee from a sensory scientific and behavioral economic perspective.
In a blind taste test (n=205), naïve consumers tasted two cups of coffee and decided which they preferred. The two coffees varied greatly in their “objective” quality (based on expert grading) and retail value. Consumers were then revealed that one of the cups contained a coffee that was much more expensive than the other, and that they could get a free cup of their preferred coffee if they could correctly identify the most expensive one.
The results showed that preferences were equally distributed among the high- and low-quality samples, and that consumers did not perform better than chance level in the identification task. These results suggest that current grading systems used in the industry may be poorly correlated with the way consumers actually experience coffee, and thus that quality inference in the marketplace is more likely influenced by external cues (e.g. brand, label and price) than to intrinsic product quality. Nevertheless, the results also show that consumers who correctly answered the identification task were also significantly more likely to prefer the high-quality sample. This tentatively suggests that better sensory expertise is correlated with a preference for higher quality, though future studies are needed to confirm the correctedness of this interpretation.
This work highlights the difficulty of objectively defining food quality, and the limited usefulness of experts’ ratings widely used in the industry. Managerial implications of these findings, as well as implications for consumer policy, are discussed.