Sun, Feb 04, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Tracking the Starbucks phenomenon

The coffee shop giant seems to know our secret desires and trains us to speak its language. After visiting 400 outlets, one academic reveals how it's done

By David Smith  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

It is a question that has baffled economists, cultural commentators and consumer watchers: Why are people who drive a hard bargain in all other parts of their lives willing to spend US$5 (NT$165) on a shot of coffee and some hot, frothy milk in a very large cardboard cup?

The reason for the remarkable growth of one of the social markers of the past two decades -- upmarket coffee shops such as Starbucks -- could now be a little clearer thanks to a US academic who has undertaken a remarkable personal odyssey to try to get to the bottom of the conundrum. Bryant Simon spent a year visiting more than 400 Starbucks coffee shops in several countries, observing customers for around 12 to 15 hours a week.

He went to 25 outlets during four days in London, but said: "I tried to have a drink in every one, but it was too painful on my system."

He follows in the noble footsteps of one-man obsessives including Morgan Spurlock, who ate only at McDonald's for the documentary film Super Size Me, Matthew Daimler, who flies 150,000km a year to give advice on finding the best airline seats on his Web site, and Bill Drummond, who drove round the London M25 orbital highway for 25 hours "to find out where it leads."

"Starbucks didn't introduce coffee and didn't even introduce good coffee," Simon said.

Simon is writing a book on the subject, Consuming Starbucks, to be published next year.

"But it did turn coffee into an identity," he said.

The Starbucks empire is strong and getting stronger. Since the first store opened in 1971 in Seattle, it has grown worldwide to some 12,500 branches with 115,000 employees and US$8 billion revenue. There are plans to expand to 40,000 branches, which would see it overtake even McDonald's.

India, Russia, Brazil and Egypt are to be targeted this year. There are 530 branches in the UK and, with profits soaring, the company has said it aims to add 50 per year, about half of them in the south east of England.

Anyone can now calculate their Starbucks density using a locater on the company Web site. A person in Regent Street in central London, for instance, is within 8km of 166 branches.

It is proof the formula works even in a nation of tea drinkers, but Simon feels one element was lost in the move across the Atlantic.

"Starbucks is dirtier in Britain. People in the US have been taught to do part of the labor, and they clean up after themselves. In the US, part of Starbucks' appeal is its cleanliness," he said.

Its ubiquity and cross-cultural appeal has attracted the scorn of traditionalists and the curiosity of academics, who regard it as a prime case study of branding in the age of globalization.

They note how Starbucks has "trained" millions of people to order in its jargon of "grandes" and "half-caffs."

Simon, who teaches history at Philadelphia's Temple University, thinks customers are willing to pay over the odds for the coffee -- the price hike from unroasted bean to urban cappuccino has been estimated at about 7,000 percent -- because of what the brand promises.

"Starbucks shows us our desires but doesn't completely fulfil them," Simon said.

"These include our desires for status, to be socially responsible and simply to have a place to go," he said.

Starbucks' success could be seen as reinvention of the 18th-century coffee house where people gossiped, debated politics or read newspapers.

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