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Oh, Starbucks

OK, this has nothing to do with Windows or technology, but whatever. Being someone who was born and raised in New England, and thus privy to the charms of a little local coffee chain called Dunkin' Donuts, I've watched the Starbucks "phenomenon" occur over the past decade with a mixture of curiosity and disdain. I'm actually a big coffee guy, and while I've long since outgrown Dunkin' Donuts' watered down coffee variant thanks to way too much time spent in France (we literally make "coffee" in an espresso machine every day), I still feel that DD makes far more sense than Starbucks for most people, if only because it's more affordable.

But that's not why I'm writing this. I was reading "The New York Times" this morning on the Kindle (yes, still loving it and using it daily) and came across yet another article describing the Seattle coffee chain's recent financial woes. If you're not up on this, here's the short version: Starbucks, like Krispy Kreme, expanded too rapidly and is now starting to tank. So they're scaling back, etc. and promising to keep growing. If this sounds woefully like what Yahoo is going through right now, you've got the idea. They're in trouble.

So here's the thing. The article mentions some reasons why Starbucks is in trouble, including its move to automated coffee machines, which makes the place seem more like a fast food restaurant, and it's recent expansions into both food and merchandizing, especially music. What's amazing to me is that I don't feel that the Times or Starbucks actually understands what's wrong with the chain. Here's what I'm thinking.

Starbucks is not what it was supposed to be. Lost in the mists of time is that Starbucks was created to reproduce the Italian café experience in America. To my knowledge, they have never accurately done this. Most Starbucks chains bear absolutely no resemblance to any European café I've ever visited, and please trust me on this one: Going to cafés is a big part of my many trips to Europe. If Starbucks was like that, I'd be all over it. That's never been the case.

The coffee is too expensive to drink it every day. When Krispy Kreme expanded onto my home turf, I uttered the unusually prescient phrase, "New England will be Krispy Kreme's Viet-Nam." And it was, because people here buy $1 cups of coffee each and every day at DD, while the typical Krispy Kreme fan was all about the donuts. You can't eat donuts every day (at least not for long), but people are addicted to coffee. By the time Krispy Kreme figured this out, it was too late. Well, Starbucks suffers from the same problem, basically, except that in this case, you can substitute a $5 cup of coffee for the donut. Sorry, but that's unsustainable, and if one were to really look at their daily expenses, that would be one of the first things to go. DD was able to emulate Starbuck's espresso/latte-type drinks perfectly, and the chain now sells these drinks for half the price of Starbucks. Game over, at least where DD is common, or where local coffee shops can do it for less as well.

Automated coffee machines aren't the problem. Neither is the food. Most Americans would rather get identical coffee drinks quickly than wait while someone makes them by hand, so this is a non-issue (and one area where not exactly duplicating the Italian café experience actually makes sense, at least in this country). The food isn't an issue either: Many people will want at least a snack with coffee anyway, and, my God, have you had those breakfast sandwiches? They're actually quite good. The problem with Starbucks is that there's too much going on that's not café-related. The music stuff is over the top, often too loud, and the merchandizing in a typical Starbucks is disgusting. These stores have morphed from cafés into temples of consumption. We get it, Starbucks. You're trying to sell us stuff. Now back off.

They've botched the music thing. One of my happy places was the Starbucks in downtown Bellevue, Washington, a few minutes away (barring traffic) from the Microsoft campus in Redmond. This particular location featured a large seating area with huge booths and large, comfortable, living-room furniture. It was wonderful. And then they killed it: Apparently, Starbucks uses its Seattle-area stores as living experiments, so it changed this place into what is basically a Tower Records location that sells music. The comfortable and huge seats are gone, replaced by racks of CDs and listening posts. Guys, spare me: You sell coffee, not music. There's a reason Tower Records and all the other music chains are gone: They suck. They're loud, obnoxious, and unwelcoming. I can't believe they killed this place.

They don't get wireless at all. Though Starbucks was arguably a wireless pioneer, offering Wi-Fi access long before it was common, they haven't grown with the times at all. Why is this? Because Starbucks actually charges you for Wi-Fi access, rather than using that as an incentive to get people to hang out there and buy their actual product (which, remember, was coffee). Meanwhile, virtually every other coffee shop on earth offers free Wi-Fi. Guess which I prefer?

I have a penchant for nostalgia, yes, but I think the only thing that will "save" Starbucks is for the chain to look back to its original plan and make an Americanized Italian café that sells coffee and food in a comfortable and friendly location, along with free Wi-Fi and, yes, the occasional CD if necessary. There's no need for there to be two Starbucks at every intersection, however, and there's no reason why the company can't sell $1 cups of coffee in addition to the $5 stuff. (Apparently, they're actually testing this.) Automation is OK, because the soul of Starbucks is the experience. It's unclear why they don't get this.

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