Thursday, February 28, 2008

the most publicized coffee break in the world

So, I'm sure you've all heard--or felt--that Starbucks closed early on Tuesday for "retraining." Okay, just looking back at that first sentence makes me want to get all comic bookish on you: Egads! Zoiks! Blam! Starbucks closed early? Whatever are we going to do? Maybe it's the cynic, or the slightly jaded ex-"partner" in me, that wonders what the angle was for such a move. Has quality declined that much or so sharply that such a move was needed? Will the drinks really be that much better on Wednesday morning? Hmm. So I got to poking around into this little mystery and here are some ramblings that came out of my search.

To start, I heard about "the story" on today's morning news, the day after the fact. That alone should give pause to several people I know who think I go ape over Starbucks (and who thus give me Starbucks stuff in my stocking). No, it's not that I hate them or their coffee --I've been known to grab a cup while cruising around Target or to meet friends at one of the three stores in my town--but I seem to have a reputation for a being a devotee when I'm really not. I think the Mac Donald's factor comes in to play here: you don't like it that much but it's familiar and the farther you are from home the more comforting the brand--and the clean bathrooms--are. I've spent a considerable amount of time away from home--in places with truly crappy coffee--so I've frequented Starbucks in several countries and states. But I digress: my point is that I never would have noticed that Starbucks closed early unless someone writing the morning "news" shows thought it was newsworthy.

So although I'm not a daily Starbucks pilgrim (if I can help it), I did find it interesting that the company closed its 7,100 U.S. stores for 3.5 hours in order to "retrain." Maybe it's because a long time ago I gave up the lattes, the extra shots, the soy--everything that piles on top of your drink to make it $4--and settled for the short drip coffee with room for cream, or on a splurge day, a tall with room americano. Both drinks are under $2, which would still seem highway robbery to my grandma, but which by today's standards is a bargain. And both drinks are super hard to mess up, the first being coffee perked into a pot and the second being an automated shot poured into a cup with hot tap water added. So, I must have been out of touch with Starbucks' sudden need to retrain 135,00 baristas in basic drink-making, which Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz cites as the reason for the company's Tuesday evening coffee break. Schultz, who just regained control of the company in January in order to win back some of the 40% profit loss the company incurred in 2007, put it a little more dramatically: "Your drink should be perfect...We have to get back what made this company great, and that is to have the courage and curiosity and commitment to do things that have not been done before."

Like what, put, a petting zoo by the condiment bar? Or a merry-go-round by the drink case? They've automated nearly every machine in every store, have drink making down to a science if not really an art, and bring in mass-produced baked goods to every outlet. Plus, they're hawking cds on their own label and promoting kitschy major motion pictures like Akeelah and the Bee. Pardon the cynicism, but what's next, spa treatments and wheat grass drinks? (Oh wait, they do sell those from the dairy case). Well, worry not. We won't have to speculate long. Schultz plans to roll out a new save-their-retirement plan at the March shareholders meeting, complete with "five bold innovations." Saddle up the ponies.

In the meantime, we can only wonder (hope?): could it be possible that "bold innovations" or not, the sun might be setting on the coffee giant's empire? Gone are the days when everyone looked to Starbucks alone to set the cool tone--and high prices--for coffee. New (and not-so-new) kids are in town: Peets, Carabou, Tullys (not to mention the thousands of coffee shops that have been around for years in cities like San Francisco and Berkeley). Peets and others who bother to do branding seem to work their brand very similarly but possibly better (be the "third place" for your customers by providing cool atmosphere, comfy chairs, beaming baristas, at least not crappy music, etc). I know, I know, naive me thinking that maybe Starbucks will just fade away, or at least become even more mediocre, playing even more Paul McCartney albums. In a free market economy there is always a way to rebrand, to recast your image and make your customers forget you sucked last year. But it was not so long ago--the 90s really--that the bohemian coffee shop down by the Pike Place Market went from a local hole in the wall to a national conglomerate--starting with airports, moving on to major metropolitan areas and vacations spots. Not long after that it became an international brand, hitting Canada, Great Britain, then Japan and, you get the picture. Back in those good old days the expandability of the brand seemed endless (think selling expensive coffee to tea drinkers in Tokyo). But honestly, where to from here? Ceylon? The company stands to shut down 100 U.S. stores this year and lay off 200 corporate workers. Do I see clouds forming near Starbucks' blue skies?

Who really knows. But what the heck, my prediction: Starbucks will circle the wagons by ditching the stores that suck the most and will focus on international expansion, which by some stroke of luck or genius is already working. Case in point, in 2000, when I briefly worked at the flagship store in Seattle, I attended a barista training session with new managers who were being trained to start up stores in their respective countries/cities: London, Barcelona, and Vienna. When I met those people I thought, this company must really be bullet proof, that, or these people have drunk the Starbucks' version of the red kool aid and really believe that they can sell American mass-produced coffee in cities that were brewing and selling coffee long before Boston hosted its famous tea party.

Apparently, Starbucks' kool aid is pretty good (maybe it looks and tastes like a vanilla latte?) because the company's international profits are up around 8%, with the company slated to open stores this year in India, Israel, Istanbul...the moon, the end of the yellow brick road, the worm hole that the characters from Lost went through when they crashed their jet. So while I don't go out of my way to frequent Starbucks here in my own town, the next time I'm in Ankara I'll make sure to dash in, use the bathroom and order my short drip coffee with room for cream. Or maybe I'll splurge and order my tall with room americano. I will be using their toilet paper, after all.


kate ortiz said...

i almost ran out to starbucks after they reopened at 9pm to see if you could truly retrain someone to serve a better automated cup of coffee. i was too lazy, though. evidently they are now back to strictly pulling a shot into the shot glass and writing our order on our cups. please. and that will solve their problems?
i would like to see the video they made them watch...maybe they did implement a new petting zoo location - automated, of course.

Melissa Reynolds said...

I had to laugh... when I saw there was one comment on here, I KNEW it had to be Kate! HA! Here's to Buckingham and all three of our's obsession with coffee. :)

Kelli said...

Hey, Melis--
I was thinking of you when I put the Cariboo Coffee reference in there, since you are the person who intro'd that place to me. :)

Good to hear from you!

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