The entropy heat death of Starbucks?

Synchronicity is coffee related blog posts from both Doc Searls and Blogorelli arriving in one’s aggregator on the same day. Granted, it was Tuesday; I’m a little behind.

Anyway: first Doc Searls pointed out Howard Schultz’s mail to his troops about how Starbucks’s growth has endangered the customer experience in its stores. Doc further opines that the “milking down” of the experience has endangered the core product.

I would concur: I thought the chain was in trouble from a soul perspective ever since, in the late 1990s, it started heavily promoting Frappucinos. Why? Because a Frappucino is a lot of ice, sugar, and milk with coffee flavoring; it’s not really a coffee drink. I believe at the time it was a creative response to a short term supply constraint (there was a big spike in coffee prices at the time), but over time the milk has drowned the coffee. Nasty-ass flavored lattés are just the logical evolution.

Still, there’s part of me that pauses when I read Doc’s recommendations. One is to “go back to real commercial espresso machines. Too many Starbucks now feature automated machines that any idiot can use. I don’t know what you call these things, but they are made to move customers through faster…” I pause when I read this, because I’m the guy who gets nervous when there are more than two people ahead of him in line at Starbucks and the line is not moving. Yesterday in the airport, in fact, there were two “baristas” (neither of whom would last a second in Seattle), who were each taking and then filling their own orders—no division of labor, no checking ahead to get drinks for the next person in line—and it took forever to get through and get my coffee. Why can’t that be sped up?

Because, of course, if you want quick coffee you don’t get to cavil about the quality of the preparation experience, or ask for the company to put in slower machines. But if you want fast coffee, why not just get McDonalds to do it? The answer is, of course, we all want to feel special, like we have a personal relationship with our coffee. What’s the best thing about going to Starbucks regularly? That the barista knows who you are and starts making your drink when you walk in the door. That is such the opposite of the mass market experience. So is the fact that I expect Starbucks to be clean, the employees to be intelligent and lively, and the other customers to be professionals. So maybe my expectations for Starbucks are classist?

Something else comes into the mix, of course: Blogorelli points to the newest East Coast trend of high service espresso bars, featuring ristretto shots, freshly roasted beans, and (most visibly) foam art on the lattes. (The article doesn’t mention it, but really good baristas can do a leaf pattern in the crema on top of a plain espresso shot even without any cream.) Having experienced this in Seattle four years ago, I can say it’s a pretty amazing difference from Starbucks and is clearly where the leading edge customer is going. So the question is, can Starbucks follow this customer?

Put another way, there are two markets for coffee drinkers: those who love coffee, and everyone else. Can Starbucks really continue to try to serve both? Or will its efforts continue to disorder its brand until it loses all momentum and is overtaken by another competitor?