Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Schadenfreude for Starbucks

Disclosure: I've been a regular starbucks customer since about 1998.

Recent news has broken about continued hard times for Starbucks. First, they scrapped rotating blends to go with a single blend after breakfast "Pike's Place." The argument is that it is a mild, average coffee that people won't object to. It seems pretty clear that its an inventory optimization move. Now, we find out that they are closing over 600 stores in an effort to downsize.

I'm not surprised, but mildly disappointed with the glee that this is news receiving. In this economy, nobody should be applauding the laying off of what must be at least a couple of thousand employees. Besides that, I think the criticism of Starbucks falls directly under what I'd called "contrarian independentinistas". I'd call that resorting to attacking popular pillars of popular culture under the claim that on is an independent thinker. I n actuality, those counter-positions are also very popular, are often based on misperceptions, and represent just as much group-think as what's being objected to - see Mac User's kneejerk and vitriolic criticism of the windows operating system. I'm going on the record to deconstruct several arguments against Starbucks, making concessions where applicable.

Starbucks customers are lemmings
This is the most accurate statement, but it doesn't really indict Starbucks of anything - it's just a way of bullying customers. If you make the argument that Starbucks has a superior product, then its popularity seems more rational. Are people who use Saran Wrap lemmings, because it works better than store-brand cellophane wrap? I agree that there are a huge number of people who have fallen into going to starbucks - but at the end of the day, there has to be something good for people to come back to.

Starbucks is overpriced
Actually - not so much. Many local coffee shops price close to or above starbucks cost per ounce. Perhaps, more importantly, Starbucks costs more because it has great benefits for its employees that put other companies in the food service industry to shame. It costs more because it has spent huge resources to cultivate and expand the fair trade coffee economy, raising the standard of coffee bean farmers and laborers in third world companies. It costs more because its been pioneering eco-friendly packaging. And yes, it costs more because its pumping money into branding and an "experience". Personally, I don't spend much time inside Starbucks, but I'm not going to criticize ambiance, even if it's architected by marketing executives

Starbucks is gross
No. No. No. I hear this argument all the time, and it steams my oysters. I'm not barista, but I think I have a good nose and palette for coffee. I've had coffee at a lot of local places and enjoy trying new places. Starbucks is above average coffee. I've been to local shops that brew better coffee - but not many. Starbucks has standardized its practices for preparing and roasting beans. Too many local shops buy beans that sound good when they are being ordered, but aren't roasted correctly - or worse, they roast the beans themselves. I have friend out here who complains about their coffee - but come to find out, he doesn't really drink coffee. I find this argument is often made by people who have an allegiance to another coffee brand. This argument is the worst when it comes from a Dunkin Donuts fan. Trust me, if you like Dunks, than you aren't getting what good coffee needs to taste like - coffee certainly shouldn't require enough dairy and confection to bake a sheet cake. Drink an extra large Dunks, with no cream, no sugar, straight out of the styrofoam, and then come back to me about your ideas on bitter coffee. There may be a minority of people who like the taste of the coffee they get while they wait at Jiffy Lube - but I think that's a pretty tiny percentage.

Final cut - if you hate the Starbucks brand, its still controlling you
At the end of the day, I think what people resent is the suburbanization of the brand. The average Starbucks customer has gone from the hip urbanite, to the soccer mom with frosted tipes, driving a Tahoe XL that gets 12 miles to the gallon. And people don't want to be associated with it. I don't want to - take it from someone trapped in a subdivision. The company is getting associated with the customers, which are really what contrarians don't want to be lumped in with. To continue the Dunk's example - if you'd rather identify with blue collar, hard workin' folks - that's great, but you are participating in the same type of social manipulation. I return to Starbucks despite these bland armies of suburban Zombies, not to be validated by them. Its a testament that I believe in their coffee, and its worth paying 40% more for. Its coffee after all, and I usually brew my own now anyway - and yes, I often buy select blends of Starbucks roasted beans. Contrarians might not like how the brand makes them feel, but when they raise a tentpole around these arguments that don't hold weight, they aren't realizing that they are subjecting themselves to the same level of brand control as the blind devotees.

Is Starbucks perfect? No. But its good coffee, consistent coffee, procured and delivered using ethical practices. And unless the company in question is building land mines, nobody should be applauding the loss of American lower-class jobs.


Amy Woods said...

If you've read the book "Starbucked," then you should actually applaud Starbucks for keeping the local coffee shops in business. The rise of Starbucks has actually allowed the little guys to charge 3 bucks for a cup of coffee. In fact, one small coffee chain owner said that he waits for a Starbucks to open in his area and then puts one of his coffee shops nearby, thus guaranteeing its success. I personally do not like the really dark roast, but that's me.
I highly recommend the's well done and it gives you a great insight into the rise of coffee in America and how Starbucks changed the market.

Seamus Woods said...

I prefer gas station coffee myself. All the Mobil stations have Green Mountain Coffee here, which I like, and it's a good bit less money. But I think I have Starbucks to thank for generally raising the bar for coffee in general. I'm pretty sure gas station coffee was undrinkable before Starbucks raised the general awareness for good coffee.
I've deliberately tried to keep myself from developing too discerning a palate for coffee so that I can still enjoy the cheap stuff. That and audio equipment...