Heart of Starbucks

Despite the many mistakes that have led to its current troubles, Starbucks still has the capacity to create a sense of community and a purpose larger than just selling coffee.

On November 26th, at approximately 10:45 a.m., Starbucks store No. 7449 in Nyack, New York, lost its greatest asset.

No, it didn't run out of its Pike Place Blend, oatmeal, or the sausage, cheese and egg sandwiches. It lost a regular customer -- a homeless man known to locals as Fleming Taylor, 62, who turned up dead in a nearby stairwell, where apparently he spent his nights and succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage.

Fleming's fellow Starbucks regulars were grief-stricken, making a shrine of the plush, purple chair in which he had held forth each day for the previous year or so, chatting and philosophizing with his fellow customers.  Most everyone assumed Fleming was homeless, but didn't know for sure because he never talked about himself.

"He was a proud man -- always cheerful, always smiling," Jen Weddle, the store's manager, told the New York Times. "I guess we were kind of his other family and I think that meant a lot to him, and it meant a lot to us."

This sad story, ironically, doubles as good news for Starbucks. It suggests that, despite the many mistakes that have led to its current troubles, Starbucks still has the capacity to create a sense of community and a purpose larger than just selling coffee.

About three years ago, I interviewed Anne Saunders, who was senior vice-president of marketing at Starbucks at the time (she's now with Bank of America).  The first question I asked Anne was, "What business is Starbucks really in?"

She said: "A favorite saying we have around here is, 'we're not in the coffee business, serving people; we're in the people business, serving coffee.'"  She also said, "We really think of ourselves as a coffee house."

Three years later, it's fair to say that while Starbucks may still think of itself as a coffee house, not enough of its customers do.  Shortly after Starbucks announced it would close some 600 locations, I took a survey of readers of my daily e-mail newsletter, "Cool News of the Day." 

The encouraging news for Starbucks was that roughly the same percentage of respondents said that they "liked" Starbucks about as much as they did five years ago.  However, the percentage saying they "loved" Starbucks dropped precipitously, from 33 percent who said they loved it five years ago to just 10 percent now.

In addition, the percentage saying they are "neutral" about Starbucks has increased to 39 percent, up from 23 percent who said they were "neutral" toward Starbucks five years ago. 

Respondents cited a variety of reasons for their dimming view of the Starbucks brand, from the price/value relationship of its offerings, to a sense that the service isn't what it used to be, the stores aren't as clean and comfortable, and attempts at innovation have missed the mark.  As one respondent put it: "Stop trying to sell me music and all that other crap!"

However, underlying such sentiments was an overarching sense that Starbucks simply had lost its way by opening too many stores, too quickly.  "It was cool when it was rare. Now it's a 7-Eleven of caffeine," said one respondent.  "It's spread too thin to really create community anymore," commented another.  "At the end of the day, it's a chain," said a third."

Customers at Starbucks Store No. 7449 in Nyack, New York, clearly didn't get the memo that their favorite coffee house wasn't cool anymore.  Unfortunately, the powers-that-be at Starbucks haven't gotten that memo either, and seem to believe that they can simply cost-cut and discount their way back to growth.

With its promise to trim some $400 million of cost out of its system, Starbucks is once again catering to its clients on Wall Street instead of its customers on Main Street.  Nothing against cutting out waste and inefficiency, but Starbucks' more urgent priority should be to restore the warmth and community that used to make it a special place for so many people.

Instead of teaming up with Subway in yet another misguided attempt to make its product even more ubiquitous than it already is, Starbucks ought to think about linking up with local libraries and newspapers to help create conversations like the kind Fleming Taylor used to start.

Instead of offering up a loyalty-card program in yet another boneheaded move to confect the artificial allegiance of its customers, Starbucks should consider collaborating with local radio stations and bring live music into their mix, the way authentic coffee houses do.

Instead of serving cheaper drinks, Starbucks should invest in better service, cleaner stores and more plush, purple chairs like the kind Fleming Taylor turned into a bully pulpit of friendship, conversation and community.

If Starbucks does these things, the price/value ratio will work itself out, because even in today's economy people will pay more if it they are getting more of what they really want.  It isn't all that complicated and it won't take much.  All Starbucks has to do is remind us why we loved Starbucks in the first place.  The rest will take care of itself.

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  • Linda Lazzeroni

    Our local Starbucks is in the people business. I am one of the 'live performers' on Friday nights. I take my keyboard with me. There are guitarists and vocalists, too. Great place to be.
    Linda Lazzeroni, NW Tucson, AZ