Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz’s memo warning top executives that the “Starbucks experience” has been watered down drew rallying cries from workers across the company on Friday…. Schultz laments in the Feb. 14 memo that some decisions have resulted in “stores that no longer have the soul of the past….Some people even call our stores sterile, cookie cutter, no longer reflecting the passion our partners feel about our coffee. In fact, I am not sure people today even know we are roasting coffee,” he wrote a week after sending a message to all employees encouraging them not to be disheartened by unspecified negative media and online reports…. “I take full responsibility myself, but we desperately need to look into the mirror and realize it’s time to get back to the core and make the changes necessary to evoke the heritage, the tradition, and the passion that we all have for the true Starbucks experience,” Schultz said in the memo.
I’ve had the same experience in Miami, Minneapolis, New York, Scottsdale, St. Louis, Beckley, WV, and Vancouver, BC. In fact, if I closed my eyes and relied on my senses of taste and smell, I couldn’t have told you where I was…and perhaps that’s the problem. No, I’m not talking about McDonalds or KFC or Burger King. I’m talking about Starbucks, a company that has always professed to take pride in the “experience”. When you have a company with roughly 140,000 employees nationwide and a uniformity of menu offerings that would make the late Ray Kroc blush, how much of an “experience” can you really sell?
I’ve had the same coffee and pastries in Miami, New York, and Portland, OR. Yes, they’re good, but I can’t help but wonder if having such enforced uniformity is a good thing. I can order a cup of coffee and a maple nut scone on Harborside Drive in Galveston, TX or Snelling Avenue in St. Paul, MN, and I will get EXACTLY the same thing in each location. Yes, the coffee and the pastry will be reasonably good in either place, but that’s not my point. You’d think that a company so committed to providing the Starbucks “experience” would rely less on uniformity in it’s menu and more on regional offerings. If I wanted McDonald’s (and trust me, I don’t), I’d go to McDonald’s.
I don’t really have a problem paying $6 for a pastry and a cup of coffee. To me, it’s an investment in my peace of mind, and since I don’t drink much caffeinated soda, coffee is my designated caffeine delivery system (‘course, I can quit any time I want). I think the problem that Starbucks is experiencing now is the result of the emphasis on rapid growth. Yes, their coffee is good (if not great), and their food offerings are edible (if not exactly culinary works of art). Unfortunately, they’ve reincarnated themselves as a collection of upscale cookie-cutter franchises with a degree of uniformity that McDonald’s would be proud of.
“I take full responsibility myself, but we desperately need to look into the mirror and realize it’s time to get back to the core and make the changes necessary to evoke the heritage, the tradition, and the passion that we all have for the true Starbucks experience,” Schultz said in the memo.
He is worried about competitors, too, saying that some decisions ‚Äö√Ñ√Æ such as switching to automatic espresso machines and using flavor-locked coffee packaging ‚Äö√Ñ√Æ have left openings for other coffee shops to appeal to former Starbucks customers. That situation “must be eradicated,” he wrote.
Schultz should be worried about competitors. While I like Starbucks coffee, there are other, smaller competitors out there whose coffee is superior- in some cases, far superior. Dunn Brothers, Caribou Coffee, even Diedrich’s- to name a few smaller chains here in the Houston area- have coffee that is far tastier, just as strong, and less bitter than Starbucks. Most of the coffees Starbucks offers are over-roasted, and as a result often have a burnt, slightly bitter taste.
Schultz does not offer specific solutions, but said he wants the company to be “smarter about how we are spending our time, money and resources. Let’s get back to the core. Push for innovation and do the things necessary to once again differentiate Starbucks from all others.”
“Get back to the core”? How about starting with stopping trying to be the same on Indian School Road in Scottsdale, AZ, as you are on W. 48th Street in midtown Manhattan? How about providing an atmosphere that actually resembles a coffee shop? How about providing comfortable seating where customers could actually sit and relax for a spell? Go to virtually any Starbucks, and you’ll understand that it’s all about turnover- getting the customers in and then out the door as quickly as possible. The hard wood chairs and tables are more suited to a conference room than to a coffee shop trying to create a relaxing, welcoming atmosphere.
I like Starbucks, and wherever I travel, I inevitably find myself at one. I can get a couple of pastries and a large cup of coffee- a satisfying, if not light, breakfast- for less than $10…even if I get a copy of the New York Times. That’s not a bad thing, but I think I’d like it more if virtually every location wasn’t so uniformly corporate. I find myself looking for options other than Starbucks, and those options are becoming increasingly more available.
If I was Howard Schultz, I’d be asking myself one simple question: How much is enough? How many locations do you need before the quality of your product and the experience you offer begins to suffer and your customers look elsewhere? I don’t have the answer to that question, but I do think it’s the root of whatever “problems” Starbucks is experiencing.
‘Course, I can quit ANY time I want….