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Wednesday, April 2, 2008 12:39 pm

The dimming star of Starbucks

Why the coffeehouse chain has all the ambiance of a McDonald’s

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Untitled Document About a year ago, a stinging message was delivered to the corporate honchos of Starbucks, the megachain of costly coffees. The writer decried the “commoditization of the Starbucks experience,” bemoaning the fact that the stores “no longer have the soul of the past and [instead] reflect a chain of stores versus the warm feeling of a neighborhood store.”
He’s right, of course. You go into a typical Starbucks these days and the talented barista who used to make your cup has been replaced by automatic push-button coffee machines. Instead of a friendly “Thank you,” you hear “Next.”
The interesting thing about the guy who wrote to the honchos is that he is none other than Howard Schultz, the founder and former CEO of Starbucks! Shortly after delivering his pointed critique, Schultz returned to the helm of the sprawling chain, promising to restore the “customer experience.”
It’s not going very well. He has gotten rid of the warmed-up and smelly egg sandwiches, but he has stuck with those push-button espresso machines and the inadequately trained staff. In the year since Schultz’s return, Starbucks’ stock price fell 40 percent, and its stores are losing customers to genuine locally owned coffeehouses. As much as Schultz will tinker with image, the fact is that Starbucks is now just another huge chain, with 15,000 stores. They are so ubiquitous that have lost all mystique. One near my home, for example, shares space with Jiffy Lube — now there’s an image for you! What irony that Starbucks yearns for the image of the cool independent coffee hangouts that Schultz spent the last 20 years trying to drive out of business. Those places survived and now thrive while his corporate chain has to compete with McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts. How cool is that?
Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, columnist, and author.
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