Starbucks is one of those nice little-rise stories where this small idea comes along at just the right time and ends up being transformative and hugely successful. The real kicker though is usually that the idea is simple, almost obvious in retrospect.
For Starbucks, it was anticipating the demand for a new type of experience in the digital world.
Coffee used to be ubiquitous. It cost a quarter at the gas station and tasted like dirty water run through a sock. You’d grab a white plastic-foam cup if making a long drive. My mom was perfectly happy making a pot of Folgers on Sunday and then reheating cups in the microwave all week as needed. It was just a bitter delivery mechanism for caffeine.
What Starbucks realized is people wanted more than that. There was snob appeal. Tell people that smart, classy folks know that an Ethiopian dark roast is an exquisite drink fit for the elites. Encourage guests to custom-order their drinks. That has snob appeal, justifies a higher cost, and provides a ritual for people to incorporate into their lives. “I need my ice quad venti mocha or I can’t work today!”
They saw the importance of Wi-Fi and having a place to study, work or socialize. They also borrowed heavily from fast food, and realized that consistency, clean bathrooms and familiarity would make Starbucks a welcome sight for people all over the world.
Sure, say what you will about the dark side of all this, and I’m about to, but one can’t deny that this basic idea of selling people the Starbucks “experience” was wildly popular and insanely profitable.
Ten years ago, I was going to Starbucks every day. A bunch of my friends worked there. Starbucks had big leather couches and chairs. They had The New York Times and the local New Orleans paper. Things moved slowly, and it seemed perfectly normal to pop in there, say hi to my friends, drink a tall vanilla latte in a mug, read the paper, and spend an hour getting ready for the day.
Then it all started to go wrong. I don’t know if it was greed or hubris, or maybe just buried contempt for society. Whatever it was, Starbucks forgot that it was the experience they were selling. They deluded themselves into thinking it was the coffee.
They opened more stores. They got rid of the comfy seating and the newspapers. They started pushing mobile orders, drive-thru service, and awful little kiosks in the grocery store, as if chugging down some overpriced dark roast in one hand while you shop is somehow enjoyable.
All my friends quit, citing both corporate abuse from above and hostile customers below. Now Starbucks are unionizing, but when they manage to successfully form a union over corporate objection, the stores suspiciously stop getting shipments on time, get mismanaged, or outright closed.
The food has become over-processed. The loyalty rewards program gets cheapened and rearranged every year. I wandered into the old Starbucks last week; it was terrible. The baristas looked tired and angry, there was a long line of Uber Eats drivers waiting on other people’s drinks, the place was dirty, and you could almost feel someone on a bullhorn shouting, “OK, move along, people!”
If you think about it, paying $6 for a cup of coffee is insane. Paying that for an enjoyable hour with your friends is totally worth it, but then again, when was the last time you enjoyed anything about a visit to Starbucks?
— Wolf is a retired Army officer who divides his time between DeLand and New Orleans. For more, visit https://evancwolf.medium.com