Saturday, November 17, 2007

Star. Bucks. See? Now you get it.

"As long as people will accept crap, it will be financially profitable to dispense it."

A fascination with trends can distract people from reality. Whether it's clothing, paint colors, language, television, etc., it's easy to lose track of what's important; or at least what is in good taste. Or even what actually tastes good. We're easily conditioned; simply seeing something often enough can make it, not only familiar, but acceptable and possibly desirable. Take for example how quick we are to recognize a pair of white cords dangling from the ears of someone walking down the street. Then there are the bite-sized dogs being carted from store to store by their owner as she babbles on a cell phone. Obviously the flurry of Paris wannabes is an extreme example, but that degree of influence trickles down.

Yet another symbol - the white cup with a green circular logo wrapped in a brown cardboard jacket topped with a bit of plastic - goes unabated. They, like the fast food vendors, are taking something otherwise pure and simple - in this case coffee in its various forms - and profiting mightily not by making it better, but by making it fat-ridden, convenient, and overpriced. Perhaps they're too new to be recognized, or too ubiquitous to be considered vile.

A motivational speaker, sent to spruce up the morale at my office a few years ago, asked a great question that has always stuck with me.

"What does McDonald's sell?"

When a guy in a suit asks you a question with an answer this obvious, it's probably a trick so best discard the initial response. After all, McDonald's does not make the best hamburgers in the world (or certainly not in line with their popularity), nor have they ever claimed that they do. So what do they actually sell?


They pioneered the notion of not even having to get out of your car to eat. Hell, you don't even need to park the car. In exchange for quality, you get convenience, consistency, a low price, and best of all - time.

Getting you food efficiently also works in their favor. The more cars they can pass through the "drive-thru", the more money they make. One bottleneck was the time it took for a customer to piece together and convey what they wanted. They needed a much quicker method of getting you in, getting your money, and getting you food, so they invented the "Combo". A cheeseburger, a medium fries, and a medium drink became reduced to "A Number 2". That abbreviation in our world seems minor, but when consider several million people doing it, every single day, it adds up.

Which leads us to another bright guy aiming for profitable sweet spot of mediocrity who had a similar idea... perhaps he could do for coffee what McDonald's did for hamburgers? Screw quality, give them - no sell them - convenience. Just think of how many people drink coffee. Now think about how much they'd be willing to pay to have someone else make it? 60 cents? $1.40? $2.00? Child's play.

As L.Ron Hubbard once apparently said (and delivered on quite successfully), "If you want to make a million dollars, start a religion." I say, if you want to make a million dollars, sell them something they could make themselves, but would rather pay you quite handsomely to do it for them.

No, wait. Coffee isn't profitable enough. A cup of coffee is, what, $1.45? Surely you'd be willing to spend more than that. But how they get you to order lattes for $2.45 or one of those sentence-long, code word-riddled, fat and sugar-packed nightmares for $3.75 instead of a cup of coffee? Easy. Make that coffee horribly nasty. Think about it. How many people have you seen go into Starbucks and just order a cup of coffee? Now you know why. Seriously, the stuff is like yak ass.

Walk into a Starbucks and take a look at how big their coffee urns are. Tiny huh? Now walk into a Peet's coffee and look at their coffee urns. Big. One of them sells more coffee, the other sells more "Frapacapamacadopolatiationos(TM)". 'Cause they're more profitable.

Having profited myself nicely from several major corporations, I don't have the usual contempt for them. I blame them for doing to coffee what McDonald's did to the hamburger. Both companies misinform younger generations about what something as fundamental (and, in my world, essential and sensual) as coffee can and should taste like.

Starbucks is also kinda sneaky. They remind me a bit of Walmart who declares an obscure location, usually in the Midwest, as having "earned" the "right" to have a Walmart and runs full-page ads congratulating the citizens of this unassuming community for having been rewarded the right to buy absolutely mind-boggling amounts of stuff made in China. Seriously, ALL of it is made in China. All of it. Walmart then proceeds to put mom and pop businesses into bankruptcy all the while touting the number of jobs they're bringing in and how the community will benefit as a whole. Problem is, costs a lot of money to build a Walmart. Costs very little to set up a Starbucks. An espresso maker, some (small) coffee urns, lights, a bathroom, blenders, an ice machine, some couches, an intricate wi-fi network to download songs to your iPod, and some overly-perky people to staff the thing. Opening a Starbucks, you've loaded a bullet in the chamber of a gun aimed at every coffee shop within a 2-block radius. Except one.

The people that they hire aren't your average retail workers. They, too, are part of the branding, experience, merchandising, and research engine. They even get creepy...

"Hi, welcome to Starbucks, I haven't seen you in here before, you live around here? Work around here? Do you bring friends in here? How often? Do you think they like our coffee? How old are your friends that come in here? Are there other goods and services they might find interesting in a Starbucks?" Okay, I made up the last two, but I bet if I let them keep talking...

To me, this is tantamount to door-to-door solicitors. You can't spam me while I'm paying you and especially not before I've had my coffee: "Listen, 'Lisa' (with a heart over the "i" and a smiley face on her name tag), just pour the coffee. Let me worry about my friends."

While I'm on their case, let me clarify another little tidbit. The words you're looking for are "Small", "Medium", and "Large". "Tall/Short" are heights, "Grande" means large so just say large except, here, you're talking about a medium, "Venti" means twenty which, I assume, describes the number of ounces of liquid the container can hold. Every single time I'm forced to order anything at Starbucks (desperate times folks), I'm going to order it by SIZE, not height, mislabled size, or the number of ounces. Thanks.

Wait, I'm not even sure I'm in a coffee shop, a music store, or the lobby to a movie theater? Please tell me because I'm confused. I get a free iTunes download every time I what? Seriously, tell me, how do CD's make the coffee taste better? And why do I need to pay $4.00 for a coffee beverage AND still need to pay for wireless internet access?

Who actually cares what the product tastes like any more? Who among you has any idea who Ernesto Illy is and how everything about Starbucks shatters his world?

Nah. That doesn't even bother me that much. Predatory practices bother me.

In Willow Glen, near/in San Jose, there is a Peet's coffee nestled among a bagel shop (Noah's) and a Jamba Juice. Between them, they pretty much covered everybody's needs. 4 blocks down, on a corner, is a Starbucks. Perfect.

Apparently Starbucks found out about another coffee shop in business within walking distance of their corner store. So what did they do? They built another Starbucks directly across the street from Peet's. (I'm sure the permits to build one on the sidewalk in front of Peet's fell through.)

But ya know what's funny? Peet's is still packed and I think I know why. They still care about on of the main reasons you went to a coffee shop in the first place; the, you know, coffee.

Weird huh?

1 comment:

anarchist babe said...

This American Life did an interesting segment a few years back about how profitable Starbucks are. Story was about a Starbucks that came into a business district with a corner that was considered jinxed. No store had survived more than 6 months in that location but Starbucks thrived. The interview coverage was actually complimentary, giving the opinion that Starbucks is one of the few businesses that can bring a touch of revitalization to an area. Just a different take. I'm not a big fan of their plain coffee but i do like anything smothered in caramel. -debbie,