I make no secret of the fact that I don’t much like Starbucks. The reason isn’t because of it poor record on fair trade (which I believe it has somewhat ‘fixed’ now), or even its not-the-best coffee. The reason why I have grown to hate Starbucks is because of their aggressive global expansion and McDonalisation of the ‘coffee culture.’

The truth is I don’t much like any of the big brand shops. McDonalds, Burger King etc. However the flip side is that they drive suppliers price down and, in the case of supermarkets, are able to attract consumers because they are simply cheaper than small independent store. Then of course there is the value of ‘brand recognition.’ Step into any McDonalds or Starbucks and if you’ve been to one, you’ll be familiar with what’s on offer at another, that kind of familiarity is good for repeat customers who aren’t looking so much for the ‘experience’ as much as they are looking for a burger or coffee.

Of course Starbucks has a responsibility to its shareholders to be successful. Their strategy is unashamedly to continue an aggressive program of rapid expansion, growing by more than four stores and 200 employees every day. But as the company sells itself on he ‘experience’ of Starbucks, I find myself turned off by it’s feeling of mass production and by the fact that a Starbucks could appear at the end of my street almost overnight, and just like a MacDonalds its success would be almost guaranteed.

My fear, of course, is that Starbucks will simply drive my favorite independent coffee houses out of business. The likes of Portland Coffee House in Portland, The Revue in Fresno California, Uptown Espresso in Seattle, and my favorite, The Atomic cafe in Beverly, Massachusetts. Unsurprisingly, despite the disappearance of many independents, Starbucks themselves feel that their expansion doesn’t have a negative effect on the independents but rather “invigorates the marketplace”, which is megacorp speak for “such-is-life.”

As much as I want to hate Starbucks for being a big-nasty-megacorp, I couldn’t help but soften up a little when I learned of one daily routine carried out by Starbucks CEO-designate Jim Donald. Apparently, according to a recent magazine article I read, Donald calls five of the 550 Starbucks district managers in North America, each of whom oversees 10 stores, to check in for a minute or two. He then dials three Starbucks stores at random to say thank you to employees and ask for feedback. Indeed looking after its staff, or ‘partners’ as they like to refer to them as, is one of the cornerstones of the companies strategy. In fact, chairman and chief global strategist Howard Schultz told BusinessWeek Online in October that in the next two years, Starbucks will spend more on employee health care costs than it does on coffee!

Another objection I have to Starbucks is the price. Here in the UK my local Borders book store (yes I know, another big retail corp) used to have it’s own little coffee shop. However Borders did a deal with Starbucks and replaced all of their in-house coffee outlets with Starbucks. My usual drink of choice, an almond steamer, leapt in price from just 70 pence to nearly three pounds (about five bucks)! It’s steamed milk with a couple of shots of syrup for goodness sake!

Jon Markman of MSN Money recently broke down the cost of his regular Starbucks beverage, a double-tall, extra-hot latte with a single pump of sugar-free vanilla costing $3.22. He concluded that the main ingredient was a double shot of espresso, costing $1.85. The Starbucks he visits don’t charge him for the shot of vanilla, and at the sugar-and-napkins counter he could pour as much milk into his cup as he likes, so that’s free, too. Therefore the $1.37 premium was simply for the labor of steaming the milk, which takes about 20 seconds. Markman writes “If a barista can do three steamed milks in a minute and keep up that pace all day, then she’s earning Starbucks around $246 an hour just by steaming milk.”

Perhaps I’m just old fashioned an overly romantic about the business of doing business. It’s getting harder and harder to support the little guy these days because they’re getting fewer in numbers. Pushed into obscurity by the mass produced machines of the big-brands. For me the ‘experience’ of shopping has eroded to a mere function. We travel like drones to the mall, to walk through the very same selection of shops that we would find in any mall, anywhere. It would seem that Individualism is something of a lost cause, and maybe it’s just me, but I think we’re poorer for it.

Starbucks workforce article (Free registration required)
Jon Markman on Starbucks
PoshCoffee – Maybe one day I’ll do this
Portland Coffee House – Oregon : Review
Revue Cafe – Fresno, Cal
Uptown Espresso – Seattle
Atomic Cafe – Beverly, Mass
Starbucks Frappuccino = three cheeseburgers worth of calories