Fighting Starbucks - an opinion-piece ~ Sounds + Food 'n' Retail

play it again, Sam-3.jpgThe argument for mass-production is that it enables innovations to become cheaper and hence raises the general quality of life of consumers. The argument against mass-production is a more controversial one: that it destroys the unique quality of, let's call it, art.

Starbucks is a very good example of those principles. It brought a higher standard of coffee to the American masses, who, according to Howard Schultz's Starbucks biography, had long been oppressed by low-quality coffee from retailers and coffeeshops alike. At the same time, as the recent crisis at Starbucks illustrates, it has reached a saturation-point: it has brought Starbucks-outlets to every corner in the US, as well as spawned a whole army of competitors, and its brand has become diluted. It has become a commodity.

Back to their roots?
The re-enstatement of Howard Schultz as CEO is a signal, that the business has lost some of its original spirit and is in need of a guiding light. A letter that is rumoured (!) to be written by Schultz confirms that Starbucks will be focussing on re-introducing that original spirit, as hard as that will prove to be. There's only so much that you can change, after your company has reached a certain size. It would, at this point, be like saying that McDonalds is planning to become your corner-restaurant where everybody knows your name and favourite food.

The innovative angle
A friend of mine made me aware of a new coffee-brewing machine on the market, called Clover, which promises to deliver a higher quality coffee to consumers, though also at a higher price. According to Bruce Milletto, a retail consultant to the coffee industry, "a typical American café spends around $50,000 on equipment, about one-quarter of which goes on an espresso machine. At $11,000, a Clover costs the same again." Thus the investment-proposition is not an attractive one to the average cash-strapped café, who would have to spend that kind of money and charge an expected $6 per cup to recuperate that cost.

Following the rules of mass-production, Starbucks + Clover makes for a match made in heaven, and so it is: Starbucks has in fact acquired Coffee Equipment Company, the four-year-old Seattle-based maker of the Clover coffee brewing machine, for an undisclosed sum.

Considering that Starbucks has long been threatened by the commoditisation of coffee in the US, through the birth of literarily 1000s of new franchisers who, on the surface, provide the same value-proposal, though perhaps at a lower quality and price, it makes sense to acquire one piece of machinery that makes a bit of difference in the eyes of certain consumers. Considering the recent partnership with Apple, I believe that these consumers share a similar taste and price-insensitivity, and since that segment appears to be growing, I believe that Starbucks made the right call. They appeal to the type of customer that will pay $6 for a cup, and with their economies of scale, that price is sure to drop to a slightly more acceptable level of (I guess) ca. $5.

The cultural angle
There is another side to this. The USA is not the world, and while Starbucks has been thriving over there, the Europeans (I can't speak for other continents) have enjoyed a coffee-culture for quite some time. For people like my parents, who are respectively citizens from Southern- and Western-Europe, and avid café-visitors, they would not even consider going to the Starbucks in the centre of their German hometown, because there are plenty of alternatives with more atmosphere, more identity. To them, Starbucks is like a McDonalds, a franchise that in fact shares many cultural values—bringing a good to the masses—and does so by building ecosystems of services—from music-retail to the happy-meal—to deepen the (commercial) relationships with its customers.

Consciously and subconsciously, I'm a sympathiser of "unique" café-outlets. I like spending time in them, sometimes hours at a time, read my newspaper in peace, and enjoy a reasonably good coffee at slightly less than $2 a cup. I don't actually care about spending twice that for a coffee, but all the Starbucks's I've been too (exclusively in Germany and the UK, I must admit), have been so devoid of atmosphere that I don't really spend more than a few minutes there, 30 max. The only thing that does attract me about them and similar stores, is that I can grab a cup-to-go, mostly in the summer, and enjoy it out in the sun.

As a citizen of Europe, I think I am a fan of the heritage of the traditional café and don't really want it to go. If that makes me "backwards" or conservative, I am sorry. I want the chance to enjoy a Turkish coffee in Brussels, an Italian coffee in Cologne, or simply a Dutch one here in Rotterdam. I enjoy knowing the history of a pub that has existed for over a 100 years in Antwerp, and the same in Maastricht, or Amsterdam. I want there to be a diversity, and most important, I want that choice to be mine. I don't want there to be a cloned coffeeshop on every corner.

One of the saddest things I heard, while I was in Belgrade last year, was the exactly such a historical café was replaced by a chain (and the coffee stunk too); and I was equally sad to see that nearly all of the traditional retailers I remember from before the war had been replaced by a cloned shopping-centre that would've made any Western city proud: from H&M to Footlocker.

Opponent: Starbucks?
Globalisation is a situation we must all deal with. Its oldest proponents are the FMCG-companies, who are focussed on producing the same good for millions of people. The question is whether coffeeshops should embrace the FMCG-principles like McDonalds and Starbucks clearly have.

Starbucks is a formidable opponent: it is both a roaster, a retailer, and an FMCG-producer. It is strong in the US, and has a significant presence in the rest of the world. It will not go away, And not all believe that their presence is all that disruptive. I don't either, as long as Starbucks knows its limits. There are parts of the world that do not share the same qualities as US-towns. Some cities have long histories and places of heritage that should perhaps not be housing a McDonalds or Starbucks.

In a way cafés are stuck. They need the kind of innovation that Clover brings, but they are not in a position to buy their way in. If they did, they too would have to become mass-marketeers, in order to recuperate that cost. Instead they need to focus on what they do best, and coffee-machine makers to do the same and just license their technology. And whether the latter is able or willing to do that is the question.

I'm not sure how much Clover was acquired for, no one is. And I'm not sure how far Starbucks is willing to go to ensure their qualitative and quantitative dominance of the market. Will they grab every new piece of technology that promises to introduce a higher quality of coffee to consumers, keep it for themselves, and leave the traditional cafés to differentiate themselves simply by their "culture"? Sheer business-principles dictate that they will.

Howard Schultz made me believe, in his book, that it was Starbucks' mission to bring better coffee to the world. Let's hope that a richer coffee does not come at the price of a blander world.

This piece is in fact incomplete. Optimally I should write up a list of actions for coffeeshops to take. However, I am not yet that familiar with all the business-issues facing these organisations and all of my suggestions would be targeted at growing in size and battling on similar terms as a national or global player. And I'm pretty sure that many would not be willing to do that. So I think I'll wait until I have a more objective grasp—from all angles—on the situation, before giving practical advice. Feel free to provide me with that objectivity through your comments.


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