The Essence of Starbucks

I suspect this is the subject of many an academic dissertation, as well as Reports to the Board in competing companies. What is it about Starbucks?

Inevitably, I am sitting in a branch of said chain as I type this – Sheffield, as it happens. Although other than most of the customers around me being apparently students waiting for term to start at the nearby Hallam University, I’m not sure the location is too relevant. That said, what did strike me about this one is that there was no queue. 16:00 on a weekday on the periphery of Sheffield city centre, that is as odd as it is unusual.

So, back to the Question: Why Starbucks and not, say, Costa or Nero? For me the immediate answer is that the other two insist on serving espresso based coffee only – Americano, if you will. SBs stand alone in serving drip-brewed coffee, which I much prefer… I find it has more taste.

There has to be more than that though. There was a time SB branded themselves as “the third place”, meaning not home and not work. A place to meet, sit, relax and do whatever. The problem is, sitting, relaxing, whatevering doesn’t generate income per se. Sure, it equates to ‘footfall’, a crucial metric in retailing, but one coffee that lasts three hours bought by a customer who occupies a table (and uses electricity for their laptop) isn’t profitable… Especially when the next group of potential customers look in and decide the place is full, moving on instead.

With a notable exception, which I will move onto in a moment, there are few outward sign of this apparent dilemma. Power sockets are still – sparsely – in evidence but the comfy settees seem to have largely disappeared in favour of more densely packed tables. They even stll do free refills on brewed coffee – ever an invitation to linger – although the availability of this perk is no longer advertised.

The exception I alluded to is Derby.

For a short but halcyon time we had five Starbucks in and around the city. The recession and Starbucks’ admitted belt-tightening in the mid-noughties whittled that down to one and a half. The half, by the way, is the franchise branch at Pride Park… Though for its many faults, that one is by far the most meeting/laptop friendly, for fairly obvious reasons. The “local” at Willington services disappeared virtually to the day of its first anniversary, due, no doubt to an introductory rental rate expiring and some failed brinksmanship by the company? A sad loss to me personally, but I have to grudgingly accept the economics involved.

Less understandable, however, is what happened in the city centre. The original Derby SBs was on East Street. A deceptively small but cozy space located in a first class people watching area. Then the Eagle Centre transmogrified into the Westfield, with two clinical and souless SBs. Soon after, East Street bit the dust – Derby city centre clearly not being able to sustain three Starbucks within a quarter of a mile of each other. This isn’t Manhattan we’re talking about!

As it turned out, the Westfield was unable to sustain two SBs and a year or so ago, the larger, and slightly more preferable one closed. The location now plays host to Ilkeston Co-op Travel! It was preferable in my mind because it was an enclosed unit. Though lacking a view of the wider world, it at least insulated you from that world for a while. The remaining outlet is barely more than a kiosk servicing an open seating area… and so is the exact opposite. Plenty of world passing by, just too open and windswept.

The end result of all these shenanigans is that the one remaining Starbucks in Derby city centre is always stupidly busy. I was once told by a loose-lipped barista what the turnover the previous bank holiday Monday had been. The figure he quoted was so mind-bogglingly high it was simply not believable. I estimated it equated to each customer spending over £50 – maybe I wildly underestimated the throughput of customers, but my estimate was a high number (and was based on personal observation!)

My plea to Starbucks (which I have written to them about – receiving a polite brush-off in response) is to reopen East Street. The unit has remained empty ever since, and with the re-incarnated bus station, growing Riverlights complex, and temporary relocation of the City Council offices, the street is busier than ever. The absurdity of the decision to close it must be obvious to them now?

Maybe once the economy gets itself on some sort of even keel they will slowly reverse the contraction that Starbucks underwent. Sure, they grew too fast and realised in the nick of time, unlike many other companies who rode the boom of the 1990s. I just wonder if there’s a middle ground?

What was good about Starbucks in the growth years hasn’t gone away. Nor, I suggest, have the customers. The competition has undoubtedly caught up so the market has narrowed, but The Essence of Starbucks is what will always win.

PS: The queue is back, and has been constant while I have been typing away.



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