The Promise and Peril of Starbucks

May 31st, 2010   •   2 comments   

Taylor Clark doesn’t like Starbucks. However, he does patronise its outlets. Apparently he is not alone, as there are many who publicly profess their distaste for Starbucks’ “almost burnt” brew while still swarming towards their outlet.

That in a nutshell is the premise behind the book “Starbucked” authored by Clark, a Portland-based journalist who appears to have more than a little caffeinated chip on his shoulder while appearing to be balanced in his authorship. Unlike the more glowing titles featuring the world’s most famous purveyor of coffee as experience, Clark squarely places both the pros and the cons of the cafe behemoth in his book.
In case you don’t already know, Starbucks rules. With more than 17,100 stores in almost 50 countries around the world, it is the largest coffeehouse company globally. Unlike McDonald’s however, each store is owned by the company itself, which makes the chain even more impressive asset-wise.

Starbucks around the world (courtesy of Wikimedia commons)

Unlike a typical business book, “Starbucked” doesn’t just share the secret formula behind Howard Schultz’s meteoric success as the CEO and Chairman of the chain. You get truckloads of trivia about the history of the bean, its ascendance to the throne in traditionally tea-drinking countries, as well as the moral dilemmas created by superstar coffeehouses charging US$4 per cappuccino when only 5 percent of that cost ($0.20) comes from the roasted coffee beans themselves (the raw product from farmers costs even less).

For sure, one can pick up tips about Starbucks stellar success from its corporate heritage (its first outlet was opened at the Pike Place Market in Seattle in 1971 by Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegl, and Gordon Bowker), its razor-sharp real estate strategies, its spot-on modular store design and renovation processes, its incessant emphasis on productivity, as well as its emphasis on coffee as theatre.

Readers can also learn about how Schultz’s romantic obsession with experience led to him purveying the word third place (first coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg). While the use of the term is contested by Oldenburg himself, it is hard to imagine a more apt description of a Starbucks store – from Seattle to Singapore to Seoul.

While its omnipresence and ubiquity appear to be fairly welcomed around the world, Starbucks has also raised the ire of many tradition loving stimulant sippers. In Clark’s book, the following transgressions were claimed:

-Killing the character of neighbourhoods and employing predatory tactics to take out locally owned coffeehouses.

-Causing the suffering of millions of Third World coffee farmers by paying unfair prices for beans.

-Pedding a product that is harmful to our health (and to our delicate palates).

-Exploiting its employees and cruching their attempts to unionise.

-Homogenising the planet and destroying cultural diversity by saturating the world with its stores.

In a chapter called “The Seattle Colonies”, Clark chronicled how Starbucks’ globe-conquering ways encountered resistance in regions like the Middle East and Beijing (which was later soothed by the engagement of superstar Zhang Ziyi), while being warmly embraced practically everywhere else. Its troubles with unions appear to be a long-running feud, although the short employment terms of most its staff make any industrial actions difficult to sustain.

Engaging Zhang Ziyi as a spokesperson helped Starbucks swell in China (source)

Overall, the book is well-written in an often witty and sometimes caustic fashion. While Clark makes no bones about detesting Starbuck’s erosion of indigeneity, he also admits that it does have its virtues. Be emphasising uniformity and quality (albeit at a rather steep price), Starbucks helps to bring forth a calming and reassuring presence in an increasingly unstable corporate world. And that perhaps is the true “Holy Grail” in its caffeinated offerings to the world.

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  1. susan
    posted on Jun 01, 2010 at 12:48 AM

    Great insights and information. As one who has questioned the “specialness” of the Starbucks product (too strong), I’ve always wondered what was the big deal. Seems to be more of a consumer experience than a product endorsement. Your review confirms my speculation and explains a lot more. Thanks!

  2. Wei Chong
    posted on Jun 01, 2010 at 12:53 AM

    Despite it’s many virtures, Starbucks is getting too steep for my liking. Good old fashioned coffee from Ya Kun or Toastbox anyone?

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