I read an article in Time Magazine online about the new Starbucks coffee blend- Pike’s Place, and how it seemed like coffee designed by committee- bland and uniform, basically uninteresting. Starbuck’s business problems may be due to other factors besides their coffee quality, and I thought I’d give them my stance as an average consumer.
1. Market oversaturation. You aren’t going to drive up sales in the stores when you can get the coffee at the grocery store, Costco, Target and even Staples. People can brew it at home, and you’ve made a point of making your brand as ubiquitous as Maxwell House. Likewise, with a new store on every corner- How much coffee do you think people can drink? You are probably selling as much coffee as people want to consume. Be happy with that.
2. The breakfast sandwiches were a bad idea. Not that getting something hot at a Starbuck’s was perhaps an issue for some, but the fact that the ovens make the small local shop here smell like burning plastic wrap, rather than the welcoming smell of fresh ground coffee. This is one of the big reasons I don’t go there as much, and certainly don’t hang out when I do stop by.
3. You’ve taken something that was special and made it into a commodity. Starbuck’s was cool when you were paying for the experience. When there wasn’t a coffee shop or outlet in every grocery store and on every corner. I look at every new Starbucks, springing up like mushrooms after a heavy rain, and think- how do they plan to make that work? How much more coffee do you think I’ll drink just because you are shoving it in my face again? Starbuck’s used to mean you could only get it at the stores- it was special. Now it’s like water, and the special nature of “coffee as a service and experience” has been lost.
4. My local guy makes me feel special. We have a local coffee house chain here in Delaware/PA called Brew Ha Ha. The baristas have gotten to know me. We chat and say hi and share stories. My favorite one of all, Shane, makes Latte art, and you just have to check out the pictures on my flickr stream. Anyone who takes the time to draw a cat in my latte foam cares about what they’re doing, and to make my experience there special. I stop by one or two of the stores at least once a week, because for the price of a latte or ice tea, I come away with a real human experience and a sense of community. It’s not a commodity. Oh, and their salads and sandwiches rock as well. (The pastry is great as well, but I try to forswear because it’s like offering an alcoholic just a sip of wine- it’s one step down a slippery slope of indulgence….)
So in a nutshell, by being everywhere, Starbuck’s has made special ubiquitous, and it’s no longer so speacial and different. The coffee shops, when not smelling like burnt plastic, are good places to meet people and talk- micro community centers. But I imagine there’s also plenty of room on the market for competitors like Brew HaHa, which continue to sell great coffee along with a great experience, and are less worried about being everywhere than with being the best at what they do- just as Seth Godin discusses endlessly in his books.