Venti of Troubles

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Starbucks is more than just another corporate headquarters to Seattle. It's the story of hometown boys make good, even if the real genius of their explosive growth, Howard Schultz, was an import from the East. Now the storybook company is facing grande challenges to its growth and health. The Seattle Times wonders if the recession has made a permanent dent in the popularity of Starbucks. Same store sales are down, a very ominous sign in the retail trade.

I am a bit surprised by this change. After all, part of the marketing genius of Schultz was to see each Starbucks as a place for people to wander in and connect. With the recession upon us, there are many more people with time on their hands, looking for the companionship lost via layoffs. Of course, these wandering spirits have less money in their pockets to blow on lattes, especially at their steep prices. Maybe they are going to McDonalds instead. The Seattle Times columnist, Jon Talton, writes of the threat from McDonald's.

It caught his [Schultz's] company not even halfway into a turnaround. And for all his sniffing at the idea that McDonald's could be compared with his premium brand, the House of Ronald is indeed a clear and present danger. Go to the Seattle Center Mickey D's and the drive-through has a recorded message hyping espresso drinks. Right here in our house.

There's a lot to be learned here. I could interpret this as meaning that comfortable chairs, free WiFi, and smiling baristas aren't worth the extra change it takes to get one's shot of caffeine at a Starbucks. I thought Starbucks was heading south after Schultz replaced the traditional European espresso makers with a pushbutton machine some years ago. I still walk into the center of Lexington on many nice days and pass our local Starbucks by to get my coffee or tea in Peet's. Same WiFi, less comfortable chairs, but there's something about sticking with the handmade drinks that lends an air of authenticity to me. And as I have become more of a tea drinker, there's no comparison between Peet's teas and Starbucks offerings.

The Seattle piece went beyond the local aspects of Starbucks to ask whether its downturn was going to be a permanent consequence of the recession.

Maybe the worst nightmare is this: What if Starbucks is an artifact of an economy that's not coming back? A time of rising, if fleeting, American affluence as we moved from dot-coms and telecoms, to day trading and house flipping, all based on the biggest run-up of debt in the history of the world. For this venti, triple-shot America, it might have been the quintessential bubble drink.

I kind of hope that the Starbucks phenomenon doesn't come back. In some ways Starbucks is like Facebook. It is based on a technological premise. Use a coffee machine and comfortable chairs to lure lonely people, looking for some sort of comfort and satisfaction, into the shops. Add WiFi to sweeten the draw. Whenever I go into one of the stores, I see many, if not most, of the chairs taken by someone, alone and busy with a laptop. My hopes are for a marketplace that worries less about growth and more about serving the authentic concerns of the citizen/consumers, far beyond providing Internet access.

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