Saturday, September 02, 2006

The Starbucks Mystery


There have been many posts and threads thrown at forums, long discussions in the office kitchens and coffee machine hallways, hush-hush talks in the cafes, e-mails and posted mails were seen flying to the recipient, in this case, Starbucks mailbox bin, on the perennial question --- Why the hell is there not a single Starbucks in the Netherlands?

The oxymoron of this NO Starbucks outlet in the Netherlands: THE EMEA HEADQUARTERS OF STARBUCKS IS IN THE NETHERLANDS!


“Starbucks heeft rekenmeesters die tot drie cijfers achter de komma becijferen.” – Did you know that Starbucks have accountants that calculates even the last three decimals after the comma? In short, they are looking into every cent the company spends.

Waar blijft Starbucks? [Where is Starbucks?], says the article about Starbucks in Carp magazine.

Some of the educative answers featured in this Starbucks article [Carp issue of 23 August 2006 #10, pages 22 and 23], a local magazine that services the career-minded-like people, were worth a discussion, at least on my end, in this blog.


The editorial discussed the writers’ brief telephone call with Starbucks, its competitors, the coffee tradition in this country, the (pros and) cons, etcetera... and hypothesized the reasons why Starbucks never opened a branch in the flatlands. As it is, the whole idea is self-contradictory, when Starbucks’ headquarters itself sits in Amsterdam.

On a personal note, I am not a Starbucks fan, but I don’t really mind buying a cup of coffee there, once in a while. I am a bonafide coffee drinker and I once was a slave coffee drinker too. Now, I drink less, just about 1-2 cups a day. I drink more tea though, my choice.

It was 9 years ago (or 10 years perhaps?), when I first stood before a Starbucks counter and ordered my first Starbucks coffee, in Starbucks first branch in Makati City (Manila), just right across the imposing and glittering Makati Shangri-la Hotel. It was at that time, the place to be.

The Starbucks personnel asked me what size I want my normal hot coffee to be. I looked up to the menu for reference. “How come the smallest cup size is called TALL?” I mumbled to myself. “Are these the new funky idioms-at-work? Or, are they the newest form of reverse consumer psychology?”

After a few minutes, a woman shouted, on top of her lungs, my name, ****!!!! Right, enough for everyone inside the café to hear her. Thing is, I didn’t like my name announced that way, and that loud too, in a roomful of strangers. I was very tempted to tell her to just calm down. I hated it even more when they wrote, in big bold penned letters, in the cup, my name. Do these people ever understand privacy?

Okay, I am allergic to the frisky cheerleader rah-rah-rah style of marketing stratagem. This approach convinces me, and strengthens all the more, the logic to not buy from these people. I don’t like someone shrieking in front of me, even if they think (and validate) it’s fun, or cool. I don’t like having crazy sales people trying to act like clowns to please me, just to get a sale. Please, just be normal. Is that too hard to ask?

And, for it’s smallest... er, I mean, tall size cup of coffee... well, surprise, I could not even finish it.

Surely, I am far from holding the title of the snobbish coffee connoisseur, but don’t Starbucks (and people in general) realize that you get the best experience in drinking coffee, if you do it sip by sip, and in smaller cups? It’s like drinking wine. You don’t pour half of the bottle into your glass, dear.

I was also not impressed, back then, at the variety of coffee flavors flashed on the menu. However - I was bawled over at the contemporary design, the homey ambience and the comfort of the cafes, after all, I was once an Interior Designer in my past life.

As a whole, I guess, if categorized, I am the boring type coffee drinker. Definitely someone that Starbucks will never invest marketing to, for I will not bring €€€ into their deep vaults anyway. Other than that, I really don’t fancy the fattening, calorific white cream puffs and richly smothered with chocolate lacings on top frappucinos. No honey, I just want my normal hot coffee, with milk and sugar please. Sometimes, black will just do.

In many ways, I think the average Dutch is very much like me, a boring coffee drinker.

“Koffie voor Hollanders is een beladen product.” [Coffee for the Dutch is a controversial product], says someone from the Roland Berger Strategy Consultants.

“Wij gaan voor een sober, degelijk, assortiment, niet voor veel verschillende smaakjes.” [We choose for a sober and solid-type assortment, not for many varieties of coffee flavors]

Didn’t I just tell you, right? lol

In addition to this, selling on the basis of coffee quantity, will always, 100%(!), never work in Euro land. Obviously, in Dutch land too. This continent is used to diet portions of coffee being served in cafes and restaurants. It’s not cool to hold a large cup of coffee in Europe, say, while catching your morning train. I repeat - it is just not cool. People would wonder, thinking at the back of their heads, why on bloody earth would someone need that much caffeine in a go. I mean, who the heck drinks that much coffee in one order nowadays in Euro land anyway?

I have never seen one. Well, I have actually, in the UK, but not in Eurolandia.

Here is also a supposedly minor thing, but I would assume it is quite major for the coffee etiquette centered citizenry --- You do not drink coffee in a paper cup in the café. Unless of course it is for take away.

The article further talk about, that in a country where the real coffee tradition is still practiced through the mighty Douwe Egberts brand circulating every nook and cranny of the Dutch corporate world (or any Dutch office for that matter), and the still-on-its-peak-sales, the Philips Senseo, now a living legend in every Dutch consumer kitchen --- these, could probably be, the raison d’être of why Starbucks’ (the way it seems to me) are caught up in the never-ending marketing research and the up-to-now, no branch being opened in this tiny country?

Here are the coffee statistics: On a minimum average, a Dutch person consumes 4 cups of coffee in a day. Many I know drink around 8 cups and more. The Dutchman drinks 6 cups including 1 cup after dinner at home. Coffee indeed is a staple item in the flatlands.

I am pretty sure though that this boring Dutch coffee tradition does not come close to the arrogant haute coffee culture of the French and the Italians. For them, Starbucks is a mere McDonalds. An excerpt in the article says, “In Frankrijk kwakkelt Starbucks, aan Italie durft het bedrijf zijn vingers niet eens te branden”, which means - In France, Starbucks is ailing. And the company dared not to burn their fingers in the Italian market.

Shall we say Starbucks is hesitant to infest its marketing-born-concept-coffee in the Netherlands because of the above? Shall we say mystery solved?

But, unknown to many, Starbucks did set up a test shop in Hilversum, in the office of Nike. It was more like a corporate run test, not geared for the consumer public. I wonder though, how long ago was this test? Or, is this still going on?

My own personal unbiased gut-feel on this Starbucks business (taking into consideration that I am not a Starbucks fan, thus perhaps my judgment is more objective)? - If Starbucks gives it a shot in Holland I think they will do well, as long as they stay put in Amsterdam, and in the right location.

Right now, I just think that Starbucks is a big coward dog, making a lot of excuses and wagging its tail really slow and low. There’s nothing wrong with having a solid business plan and an informed decision but why is it taking them ages to come out of their shell? They need to get out of their research and test cycles and their frantic cent-per-cent comma nul-nul-nul P&L calculation fuss. Can ONE SHOP in Amsterdam really cause the company that much grief and profit loss if it turns out like France?

I think Starbucks just need to follow what Nike popularized in their commercials - JUST DO IT.

Tags: Carp Magazine

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