Starbucks Aims to Capture “Community” Feel

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starbucks1Facing flagging sales and the forced closure of nearly 800 stores worldwide, Starbucks is turning to a new tactic: becoming not-Starbucks.

The chain’s new strategy, which will be launched at a handful of stores in its native Seattle, involves a complete overhaul and re-branding of individual stores. One such store, on 15th Avenue, will re-open as 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea. Aprons, paper cups and bags of beans will no longer bear the green logo. Gone will be the standard Starbucks decor; eclectic furniture mixes will be in its place. Beer and wine will be sold alongside the gourmet coffee drinks, and the store will host open mic nights for local musicians and poets in an effort to compete with the locally-owned, independent coffee houses in the area.

The Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune both refer to the new strategy as “stealth,” but Starbucks’ VP of Global Design Tim Pfeiffer sees it as capturing “a community personality.”

What’s interesting about this move is the corporation’s frank attempt to replicate a community feel. What does this indicate? That Starbucks knows their customers appreciate community. It says that there is something different, and special, about frequenting an independent coffee house (or bookstore, or bar, or grocery store, or dry cleaner, or hardware store, or restaurant…). It means that small business occupies an important space in the landscape of business – and also in the landscape of community. Big chains may have slightly lower prices or better selection, but many customers know that there’s no replacement for the feeling of walking into a locally-owned business, greeting the proprietor by name, and running into friends and neighbors on their way out the door. Buying local is one of the best ways to increase the viability of a community economy, and small businesses have a significant role in that process.

Time will tell whether the Starbucks strategy pays off for the company, and whether 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea attracts the customers it wants. But in the meantime, the chain has sent a pretty big message to the small, independent business owners of the world – after all, imitation is still the highest form of flattery.

Via The Seattle Times.

Update, 7/27: joshc has photos on Flickr of the new 15th Avenue Coffee & Tea.

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Elizabeth Liedel is a joint degree candidate at Duke University, pursuing an MBA at the Fuqua School of Business and a Master of Environmental Management at the Nicholas School for the Environment. She is on the Executive Committee of the Duke Microfinance Leadership Initiative and is active in...
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