February 23rd, 2005.

Big bucks coffee.
An unfinished 'Meanwhile.'

The following article was left unfinished and unedited and should be read as such. Notes can be found below the article.

I make no secret of the fact that I don't much like Starbucks. The reason isn't because of its poor record on fair trade (which I believe it has somewhat 'fixed' now), or even its not-the-best coffee. The reason why I have grown to dislike Starbucks is because of their aggressive global expansion and McDonaldisation of the 'coffee culture.'

I don't much like any of the big brand shops, McDonalds, Burger King, etc. However the truth is that they drive supplier's price down and, in general, are able to attract consumers because they are simply cheaper than small independent stores. Then of course there is the value of 'brand recognition.' Step into any McDonalds or Starbucks and if you've been to one, you'll be familiar with what's on offer at another. That kind of familiarity is good for repeat customers who aren't looking so much for the 'experience' as they are looking for a burger or coffee.

Of course, Starbucks has a responsibility to its shareholders to be successful. Their strategy is unashamedly to continue an aggressive program of rapid expansion, growing by more than four stores and 200 employees every day. But as the company sells itself on the experience of Starbucks, I find myself turned off by its feeling of mass production and by the fact that a Starbucks could appear at the end of my street almost overnight, and just like a MacDonalds, its success would be almost guaranteed.

My fear is that Starbucks will simply drive my favorite independent coffee houses out of business, the likes of Portland Coffee House in Portland, Oregon, The Revue in Fresno, California, Uptown Espresso in Seattle, and my favorite, The Atomic Café in Beverly, Massachusetts. Unsurprisingly, despite the disappearance of many independents, Starbucks themselves feel that their expansion doesn't have a negative effect on the competition but rather "invigorates the marketplace," which is corporate language for "such-is-life."

Another objection I have to Starbucks is the price. Here in the UK my local Borders bookstore (yes I know, another big retail group) used to have its own little coffee shop. However, Borders did a deal and replaced all of their in-house coffee outlets with Starbucks. My usual drink of choice, an almond steamer, leapt in price from just 40p to nearly £2.70 (about $4.50)! It's steamed milk with a couple of shots of syrup, for goodness sake!

Jon Markman of MSN Money recently broke down the cost of his regular Starbucks beverage, a double-tall, extra-hot latte with a single pump of sugar-free vanilla costing $3.22. He concluded that the main ingredient was a double shot of espresso, costing $1.85. The Starbucks he visits doesn't charge him for the shot of vanilla, and at the sugar-and-napkins counter he could pour as much milk into his cup as he likes, so that's free, too. Therefore the $1.37 premium was simply for the labor of steaming the milk, which takes about 20 seconds. Markman writes, "If a barista can do three steamed milks in a minute and keep up that pace all day, then she's earning Starbucks around $246 an hour just by steaming milk."

As much as I want to hate Starbucks for being a big-nasty-megacorp, I couldn't help but soften up a little when I learned of one daily routine carried out by Starbucks CEO-designate Jim Donald. Apparently, according to a recent magazine article in Workforce Management, Donald calls five of the 550 Starbucks district managers in North America, each of whom oversees 10 stores, to check in for a minute or two. He then dials three Starbucks stores at random to say thank you to employees and ask for feedback. Indeed, looking after its staff, or 'partners' as they like to refer to them, is one of the cornerstones of the company's strategy. In fact, chairman and chief global strategist Howard Schultz told BusinessWeek Online in October that in the next two years, Starbucks will spend more on employee health care costs than it does on coffee!

Perhaps I'm just old fashioned and overly romantic about the business of doing business. It's getting harder and harder to support the 'little guy' these days because they're getting fewer in numbers, pushed into obscurity by the mass produced machines of the big-brands. For me the 'experience' of shopping has eroded to a mere function. We travel like drones to the mall, to walk through the very same selection of shops that we would find in any mall, anywhere. It would seem that Individualism is something of a lost cause, and maybe it's just me, but I think we're poorer for it.

--- Article Notes ---

Time of death : 23:51
The article just floundered around in a swamp of words that weren't getting to a point, so I killed it.