Sunday, July 26, 2009

New Rules

So Starbucks finally opened a store to try to go toe-to-toe with the high-end coffee crowd. The signs were there all along; from half way across the world, even I knew that they had bought the company that manufactures clover and remember people complaining about how Starbucks had apparently gone and bought up all the Blue Batak so that it was difficult for the little independent dudes to get any?

Read the Cho's article, take a look at the photos on flickr: from a five minute glance it looks like the new store is a cold and calculated attempt to jump into the little independent dude space. Take a look at the bolts sticking out of the back of the LM, the old-school kettles, chalkboards and enough recycled timber to take on even MD. This is grunge manufactured with decimal point precision.

Naturally, I think that the gut reaction of anyone interested in high end coffee will look at this venture with cynicism. I mean, they can't really be cool if the process by which they create the image of being cool is detached, calculated and analytical ... can they? These guys are just stepping into the little independent space and presumably regurgitating all the same messages about "single origins" and other buzzwords that the high-end coffee movement has been all about; any bets the coffee won't actually be all that good ... will it?

But let's take a step back for a minute. It's not as though putting together a funky looking cafe, presenting the public with a beguiling array of buzzwords and information about coffee and still selling a pretty crappy product is something that Starbucks has a monopoly on (if, indeed, that is what they are doing here). There are any number of little independent roasteries out there that are free-riding on the work of the good guys. I think that many of us have been to a cafe or roastery where the barista behind the expensive multi-boiler wundermachine has waxed lyrical about the fantastic properties of the coffee of the day, only to serve something that was disappointing, if not defective, but in no way lived up to the hype. Similarly, I think that many of us have been sold coffee accompanied by a whole page of information about it, but that two seconds of research will show is actually one of the cheaper, commodity type coffees right off the offer sheet of a large broker. (Sidebar: I'm in no way bagging the large brokers; they have stunning coffees as well as crappy coffees - the challenge for the roaster, as always, is to find them.)

The good news for the consumer is that Starbucks will hopefully mop the floor with independents who talk the talk, but don't walk the walk. Starbucks has the cash, the marketing brains and the clout to beat these guys at everything that they do. The only advantage that the independents have in wining the marketing "war of words" is that they are not associated with the Starbucks brand and can position themselves free of the baggage that that entails. Hopefully competing with this new entrant will mean that independent little guys will have to deliver better quality. The news is good for those that do; hopefully this new Starbucks store will act as a stepping stone to get consumers in the USA moving towards the best coffee.

So overall, I'm quite optimistic about the impact of this new venture on the consumer (as opposed to on little independent roasteries) - more competition is usually better. I do have one gripe, though - whilst the "inspired by Starbucks" tagline obviously does the job of getting the consumer to understand that it is a Starbucks store, it is a bit of a slap in the face to all of the independent stores that would seem to have been the real inspirations for it.


At 9:30 AM, Blogger "Grendel" said...

That is some good blogging there Luca - and I wholeheartedly agree - being independent is no guarantee of quality and being large and corporate is no total damnation either - I had some pretty wary thoughts about any coffee coming out of Tata Corp since they are a large and diverse company and coffee is a minor thing for them - and yet some of their brands are pretty fine coffees.

As much as we might occasionally look with scorn towards the larger end of the coffee market, they do provide a basic product to a lot of people, and sometimes people even get a little more interested in finding something better. I know a few baristas who started out in a chain and who have moved beyond the rote training they received.

At 12:14 PM, Blogger Eric said...

Agreed. Independent does not equal quality. However quality is not the secret to Starbucks success either. Maybe it was early on, however now their branding is the key driver of their success, so of course they are calculated in how they do it, this is their area of expertise.

Here in the US, Starbucks coffee comes standard with over extracted shots and vanilla soy milk. The coffee is worse than I recall on those "experimental" trips to Starbucks in Australia. Now, they don't even have proper baristi, so it doesn't even qualify as specialty coffee here. Most, if not all Starbucks here in the US seem to have automatic machines installed because their business model is about "maximizing shots per minute" as one barista, err button pusher, recently told me.
(sounding fairly convinced that his companies revenues were far more of a focus than the quality of the coffee)

I find the current advertising campaign over here amusing "If your coffee is not perfect, ask them to make it again, if it's still not perfect, you musn't be in Starbucks". What I want to know is, if they push the button the first time and it's not right, how are things going to change when they push the button again the second time?

At 11:20 AM, Blogger Froggeh said...

hey Luca, link to seven seeds is broken in this post ;)

At 9:07 AM, Blogger csb said...

Luca. I read somewhere that in the US, when a Starbucks moves in, the local independent shops paradoxically do better- can't remember all the reasons...


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