Starbucks is the Elvis of coffee: a remarkable original with a dedicated following, eventually bloated by success and sycophany. Starbucks will have to evolve to remain the leader, and changing the “physical plant” should be a priority.
Our new chain has a new name *$. *$ is based on differing paces and differing social relationships to the product and the place. *$ creates two sets of gradated experiences: fast to slow, social to private. It welcomes those of us who want our fix immediately and to go, as well as those of us who want to savor the coffee and sit for a bit (or all day) to write the great American novel – or just do a bit of emailing.
The fake-casual current stories are a homey (or homely) attempt to induce chattiness and engender a homemade, local feel. The new stores are quite the opposite: simple, fast, efficient, universal. No more cups and mugs for sale, no more music CDs (which should be a separate business), no more coffee machines and bagged beans, no more decorative bric-a-brac. Just coffee, food, service, newspapers, and the aroma of coffee.
When Starbucks began to falter in its quest for continuous unimpeded growth Howard Shultz came out of retirement and returned to the helm. He has already saved Starbucks and written the book on its revival (“Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul”) but when he arrived for his return engagement it was anything but certain that he would succeed in saving the company he invented. After all, some would say that Shultz was the architect of Starbucks demise.
At that point, in 2008, when it looked as though Shultz might actually save the company, Architect magazine posited this question to a small group of designers: what would the renewed Starbucks look like? Rather than just fix the economic woes of the company Architect wanted to fix the design of the stores.
As one of the invitees we took a look at the portion of the market that Starbucks now addresses and tried to invent a way to expand that profile to include a much larger segment of the coffee obsessed population.
We were prohibited from using the trademarked name, so we started with a new more expressive logo...*$
*(star) $ (bucks)
The conceit was that Starbucks had become all about the money. But the visual idea was to abbreviate the cuteness right out of the brand and make it as efficient as “.com”. Treated as a serious proposal by some Starbucks chat groups (yes, that’s right) it was loved by some and despised by others. The clincher was the blogger who said the asterisk reminded him of an anus. I knew we were in scary territory.
But the serious part of the proposal was based on the diagram we created about two scales along which the coffee experience could be charted:
slow to fast
social to private
Starbucks was stuck in the Slow/Social corner. In order to grab a swathe of the market all the way to the Fast/Private corner it would have to adapt to a more hurried crowd.
A smart card with all your coffee preferences would be a start. No more repeating the same order every single time you were in need of a fix.
Machine-made coffee beverages were the next idea that got bloggers crazy. It was as though the coffee they were served was hand ground and pressed. But the idea of an automatic machine (for the faster customers) offended some.
The store became a diagram of Fast to Slow and Social to Private.
Quick orders were handled on the street; no need to even go inside.
Grab and Go was separated from sit down
Social customers could sit at a counter, drink from china cups and chat with the baristas.
Groups in the back, and loners along the outside walls where they could read wall-mounted newspapers without addressing the crowd.
For all the inherent criticism of Starbucks I consider the proposal to have real merit. I had consulted with Starbucks just a few years earlier to help them imagine the store of the future and I thought it was worth a try; I sent the proposal, article and a long letter to Howard Shultz.
It must have been lost in the mail, because I never heard back from Howard...