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The Starbucks Decline

November 14, 2008

Starbucks take note: I’m your best customer.

Starbucks is on the decline. I say this with remorse, because I am one coffee aficionado that admits that Starbucks coffee can actually be pretty good. I grew up next to a coffee plantation in Guatemala. There, we drank unfiltered coffee of the most robust variety. Coffee is in my blood.

Recently, throughout the US and elsewhere, Starbucks closed a huge number of their locations, which is a major decline in and of itself, but this is not the decline I highlight here. I am talking about basic customer service.

"I just don't feel close to you anymore."

"I just don't feel close to you anymore."

There is a growing trend of a party atmosphere taking place behind the counters of most Starbucks locations (at least in NYC). This results in longer lines, longer waits, and frequent incorrect or lost orders. Cappuccino’s are thin and liquid, and complaining customers are on the rise.

This is all very unfortunate, because the original business model for Starbucks was generally good. Founder and original CEO Howard Schultz emphasized fair treatment of his Starbucks employees, and ethical business practices around the world. Schultz also believed strongly in the coffee-drinking experience (which includes anticipation, atmosphere, and a variety of sensory stimulation) which is in my caffine mind the most important ingredient in good coffee.

It seems to me that Starbucks’ decline began shortly after 2000, when Schultz left Starbucks and was replaced by a new CEO, Jim Donald. The timing seems consistent with Starbucks’ decline, although I have no idea what Donald did or didn’t do while he was in control. But the good news is that Howard Schultz is back again, so maybe the return of the foamy cappuccino is on the way.

The first thing to address with Starbucks’ downslide is the party atmosphere. I don’t go so far as to ask for a stiff and cold reception, but when chatter behind the counter stands between me and my coffee, my caffeine blood starts to percolate.

The other day, at a Starbucks on 42nd Street, a long line was amassing as the manager, flanked by nearly the rest of the staff, was explaining all the fine points of some membership card. Customers were waiting for drinks that had been already ordered, and other customers were waiting impatiently to order. I heard the manager in his pitch for the membership card, “…I like to take care of all my customers” referring to the benefits of the card. I just wanted to wring his neck. Just give me my coffee. I don’t even care if I have to pay extra. I want my coffee so I can get off to work!

I feel like the staff at Starbucks these days just doesn’t get it. Coffee is an experience. It’s the smell and the sound of grinding beans. It’s the reverence and special attention that gets placed on every cup of coffee. It sets the pace for the whole day. It initiates conversation between friends and business associates. It is the lifeblood for many of us.

Unless Starbucks employees get the picture, the brand will fall. There are plenty of other places (at least in NYC) that “get” the coffee experience. Sorry Starbucks, but you are losing me, and that will certainly put a dent in your business, I assure you.

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