How China’s One-Child Policy Forced Starbucks To Rethink Its Beijing Stores

Brands expanding in China can’t ignore the impact of the one-child policy. Liz Muller of Starbucks talks about a new Beijing store that is as much about connection as it is caffeine.

The effects of China’s one-child policy are manifold. Studies show people raised under the program are less trusting, men are unable to find mates, and then there’s the “4-2-1” phenomenon, where working young people must assume financial responsibility for themselves, their parents, and four grandparents. The policy has likely had the strongest impact on a nation’s demographics of any social initiative, save genocide, in history.


More than 30 years later, the one-child policy also raises an important question for brands looking to make inroads into the country: Is there something the young adult Chinese demographic is missing on account of growing up alone? And if there is such a thing, how can we provide it?

Liz Muller, the director of concept design for Starbucks, makes it her job to answer these sorts of questions. She’s the mind behind some of Starbucks’s most creative flagship stores. As the brand expands internationally, each of her far-flung creations aims to introduce customers in Europe and Asia to the Starbucks take on the subjects of coffee and service in a way that makes sense in their culture.

She has, for instance, replaced the brand’s homogenous retail stores with a friendly coffee-and-cookie bar in a former bank building in pastry-loving Amsterdam, and plans to help open Starbucks lounges aboard two intercity trains in rail-travel loving Switzerland, a first for the brand.

Her most recent completed projects are two flagships in Beijing: a coffee tribute store in the Kerry Centre meant to introduce home brewing methods to a well-traveled, affluent demographic, and a 24-hour store in Taikoo Li Sanlitun geared toward the young adults who the one-child policy left relatively companionless. Though the two stores are just a few miles apart, the differences are significant, and the Taikoo Li site is the one that caters specifically to those impacted by China’s infamous rule of one.

“A lot of these children have grown up in one-child families, they use our store as a connection of truly interacting with, I would say, their brothers and sisters that they don’t have,” says Muller. “Unless you want to sit in a restaurant or a bar, there is nothing in that area [around Taikoo Li] that truly gives you a safe environment where you can have a meeting or chat, or get together with friends.”

The solution, says Muller, was to create a store that would cater to a late-night crowd and have a “lounge feel,” with lower softer seating where strangers could sit across from each other and potentially make friends. There would be live music on the second floor on weekends, which the company would call Club 1971, in honor of Starbucks’ inaugural year. “It has lower lighting, and a beautiful mood, a stage for you to truly engage,” she says. “What we found is that most everybody is normally on their iPad or their iPhone, but what happens there is they put them down and they truly connect. They take pictures with each other. I think it is interesting because if you think of how they are raised, they might not have extended family that we all have, so they truly take the time to connect with people.”


The challenge, for Muller, was in maintaining the bar’s open feel all day long. Taikoo Li, which is surrounded by gardens and event space, is a beautiful site, she says, but as a glass box with few walls, the store itself was a difficult place to establish an environment where people felt comfortable looking out during the day, but also would be enticed to come in once night fell and all eyes were on the lighted lounge. Warm tones were key here, and Muller reports that the evening hours when the store gleams like a beacon in the dark are the most popular for business. “At this time, the response has been overwhelming,” she says. “People are just in awe.”

Taikoo Li has been so successful that she was called back in to add more seats, presumably for all the single people looking to connect.

About the author

Jacqueline Detwiler specializes in science, food, business, and travel writing. She has written about everything from coral-protecting robots to snorkeling with jellyfish in Palau, and once spent an entire weekend alone in the woods with an Air Force survival instructor and his machete.