Experience the Starbucks Non-Experience

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Anybody running a coffee shop can create an “experience.” Give me six CDs, five wall prints, four magazines, three counter helpers, two Turkish carpets and one idea and I can give you a coffee shop with a theme and experience.

What’s devilishly tricky is to provide the non-experience coffee shop experience. That’s what Starbucks hit on, and that’s why they succeeded so wildly. Forgetting that is why they’re now in the throes of downsizing.

Business Week noted recently that “Starbucks tried to add value through innovation, offering wi-fi service, creating and selling its own music.” Didn’t work. So after Howard Schultz’s come-to-Jesus memo in February 2007, Starbucks got that old time religion back, proclaiming themselves repentant and confessing their need to walk the straight and narrow on coffee quality. This is what we’re all about, they said, not breakfast sandwiches, Paul McCartney’s newest music or t-shirts.

What was Starbucks’s problem? It’s one many a company has had — they were too successful. They did too good a job creating the non-experience which, CRM preaches, is what customers really want.

That’s right: It’s not the experience. It’s the non-experience.

The reason you appreciate decent coffee today is because of Starbucks, otherwise you’d be happy with Maxwell House, slogan “averagely acceptable to the last drop if you really, really need to get up this morning.” Starbucks swept all that away, set the bar reasonably high but not too high. Heck even McDonald’s made an effort to improve their legendarily bad coffee, and the smugly complacent Dunkin’ Donuts, previously the best coffee to be reliably had in a franchise outlet, tried harder. And did better.

But how are you gonna keep ’em down on the farm when they’ve seen Rome, huh? Customers got to like lingering with friends over a good cup of coffee, one costing three or four bucks, in a comfortable café. Starbucks was the place you could do that and know you were going to get good coffee. You didn’t wonder about it. You didn’t have to remember which place had good coffee and which one poured overpriced swill with an Indonesian name. It was always a refreshing, relaxing non-experience handing over your money for your coffee. You knew what you were getting.

Sure that Woodstock burnout’s coffee shop down the road had technically better coffee, but frankly, you’re not a gourmet, you can’t blind taste test the difference between Kona, Blue Mountain or good ol’ Columbian (and you’re not sure you’d prefer Kona or Blue Mountain even if you could). And his music sucks unless you’re into Tuvalese throat singing or Moby Grape, and the couches are lumpy. It’s part of his shop’s “authentic experience,” roughly described as “riding in the back of a ’63 Volkswagen bus over the mountains in a rainstorm.”

In a Starbucks, everything is good. It’s not great. It’s good. You know it’ll be good. It won’t be great, but it won’t be bad either. Starbucks found the optimal level of coffee quality acceptable to the mass market — not the best stuff in the city, the Woodstock burnout still has that if you don’t mind cat hair on the tables. No, Starbucks’ coffee is a country mile better than Dolly’s Ditchwater, what the other restaurants in town serve, and they ensured a comfortable atmosphere bereft of surprises.

No experience — a non-experience. The experience you crave.

The CRM of this is frequently underrated. Starbucks played it straight with their customers. They didn’t pretend customers could tell the difference between Kona or Ethiopian, but they realized that most anyone who’d darken a coffee shop’s door knows the difference between good coffee and Folger’s and would appreciate the former. Starbucks poured a straight, honest cup of coffee, not pandering to or insulting their customers’ taste.

They didn’t expect customers to put up with “quaintness” or “atmosphere,” either. Forget college dorm-style couches, wicker furniture, quirky seating arrangements or CDs of the owner’s son’s band demos of songs they hope to sell to Tom Waits. Because friends, not all that many people except for terminally insecure English majors go to coffee shops to participate in someone else’s idea of an “authentic” experience, and they go to Starbucks because Starbucks didn’t ask them to.

Sensible, comfortable, sturdy furniture, music that keeps you tapping your toes without grating on your nerves, they hit the sweet spot. Once people knew they could get good coffee without the patchouli or Ecuadorean flute music experiences they were at Starbucks. “Non-experience, here we come.”

But then Starbucks started thinking there was such a thing as a Starbucks experience. In fact, Howard Schultz bemoaned the loss of Starbucks’s “soul,” as if that matters to anyone looking for a decent cup of coffee in comfort.

Wrong. Exactly wrong. We were not into the Starbucks experience, we do not want the soul dressing. What we were into was the fact that Starbucks, almost uniquely among coffee shops, did not, in fact, force us to have an experience.

Before Starbucks, the coffee shops were almost theme parks. Here’s the 60s Refugee Coffee Shop with Jimi Hendrix on the sound system and arugula sandwiches, here’s the Funky World Beat Coffee Shop with didgeridoos for sale and counter help from Botswana, here’s the Artsy Coffee Shop with the horrendous paintings for sale on the walls and John Cage music, here’s the Social Action Coffee Shop where you have your choice of petition to sign, the only constant was that in all of them the counter help would have a pierced nose and be wearing a Che t-shirt. I’ve been in coffee shops where you feel almost like you have to fill out a political questionnaire and be vetted before you’re accepted as a regular.

Starbucks realized that customers didn’t want all the trappings with their coffee. They wanted good coffee, a relaxing place to sit and drink it and talk with friends without having to shout over the music or keep shifting in the chair. They didn’t want the coffee shop to provide the “experience.” They wanted a place to experience life, friends, work and relaxation over coffee. You know, what you can’t sell t-shirts for, evidently.

But Starbucks thought hey, we have a good thing going, let’s expand the good times — expand the number of outlets so we’re actually competing against ourselves, expand the menu with a lot of food items nobody really wants, expand the drinks selection and complexity to expand the chances it’ll come out wrong during the rush, expand the lines, expand the wait times, cut down on the baristas’ social interactions, cut down on the coffee smell by not roasting or grinding in-store anymore, cut down on pulling espresso shots by hand.

This monkeyed with the quality of the non-experience. Starbucks started thinking that they were more important than the customers, that there was an “experience” they had to keep fresh and expanding.

Completely wrong, and now they’re shuttering hundreds of outlets because they thought they could expand the Starbucks brand, or experience, indefinitely. What they failed to realize was that customers don’t go to Starbucks for an experience. We go specifically for the lack of one — all we want is good coffee drinks, a few reasonable menu items, background — not wallpaper — music, comfy chairs, wi-fi so we can work, and that’s it. That’s the experience we’re looking for. Give it to us and we’ll return in droves.

David Sims
David Sims Writing
David Sims, a professional CRM writer since the last century, is an American living in New Zealand because "it's fun calling New Yorkers to tell them what tomorrow looks like."

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