The Destination Starbucks – a concept customer experience


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Starbucks is well noted for its consistent customer experience. You can be pretty confident of the experience you are going to get at a Starbucks no matter where you are. I am just as confident holding an ad hoc business meeting there as I am suggesting it as a place to meet socially regardless of which part of the world I am in. It really has become part of my “3rd place” between work and home. As it happens, a colleague Kalina Janevska and I were in Amsterdam and needed to do a bit of work on the fly. We wanted to get out of the hotel so we looked for a Starbucks. We happened to be staying close to Rembrandt Square. We figured there would be a Starbucks nearby as it is a popular spot. We were right.

On the East side of the square is a special Starbucks. It’s a concept store and the first in all of Europe. It opened in March 2012. You may not necessarily notice anything special from the outside. There are no signs flashing ‘concept store’. You may notice the typical Dutch bike transformed into a coffee cart. It’s there, but again, it does not jump out at you like a tourist trap gimmick. Understated is the look.

As you enter the cavernous space, you immediately see that it’s different. It’s not just big; it is designed to be cool and hip. It’s a partially submerged industrial loft space – with raw original features. Bottom line, it’s a comfortable place to sit, relax and (for our purposes) to work. We walked in and before we started to think about what we were going to buy, we were thinking to secure the seats next to the electric sockets because we knew we were going to be a while. We quickly found some and then to our surprise we discovered that all of the seats along the wall had sockets next to them. This had obviously been purposefully designed and exceeded our expectations. We were used to Starbucks having only a few sockets placed at strategic locations – presumably for the cleaning crew’s use. Customers of local Starbucks quickly learn which seats have the accessible plugs. This was not necessary here.

We then ordered our coffees and pastries and began our work. My colleague commented on the wood. Without thinking I said, its’ not that difficult to stain wood to make it look special. She then pointed out a small plaque which said the store had been outfitted using Dutch oak. Starbucks really invested in this place… and it showed. I just needed to look beyond my preconceived notions.

The next day, Kalina needed to buy a new mouse so we went walking a bit to find one. Once that mission was accomplished, we both thought it a good idea if we went back to the Rembrandt Square Starbucks even though we were closer to other Starbucks. One visit had done enough to make us want to become repeat customers. We spoke with the Store Manager, Jeroen Bol, and asked him how he measures the success of his concept store. He said two things:

  • “The look on customer’s faces. You can see how relaxed they are”. In other words they have a local metric – chilled out customers. This local metric can be tracked by staff at the local level without the need to wait for a centralised. The use of local metrics is very important in customer experience because without them, employees who deliver the experience are disconnected from the effects they create. With local metrics, employees are able to judge when the experience is off kilter so that they can intervene.
  • “Repeat customers even though this is a tourist area”. This is perhaps more akin to a global metric, one that Starbucks may use to help assess the success of any of the concepts it trials in the store. It is also directly linked to the bottom line.

It was serendipitous that Liz Muller and Nicholas van Hilten happened to be in the store. Liz is Director of Starbucks Concept Stores and Nicholas is with Edelman, the PR firm and handles PR for Starbucks Europe. They pointed out some key points behind the concept:

  • The name – it’s called The Bank because it is literally located in a former bank vault.
  • Sustainability – the place is designed using natural or repurposed materials and fixtures. For example, chairs have been repurposed from old library seats, wall coverings include bicycle inner tubes and traditional wooden cookie baking moulds. There is a heavy use of Dutch oak throughout. From the customer’s point of view, the end result of all this is “loft space hipness”.
  • Local – All of the displays and materials and design are from the Netherlands. There are little plaques around explaining the story behind the decorations. So you really can go on a little tour of the space (and in way, of the Netherlands) reading the plaques.
  • Social – the space is designed to encourage interaction between customers themselves and between customer and employee. There are spaces for bands to play live music; there is a central area where a gigantic long communal table is situated. The counters are all at just slightly above waist height so as to minimise the counter barrier. This store has its own Twitter hashtag (#starbucksthebank) where employees tweet things like when the next fresh baked cookies will be put out.
  • Educational – The plaques I have already explained. Additionally there is “Slow bar” which is where a barista will make you a specially brewed coffee. The coffees on offer in this area are specially prepared small batch makes and are to be enjoyed “black” with none of the fancy “soy caramel latte” type drinks you may traditionally associate with Starbucks. Three types of brewing methods were on offer: French-press, slow brew (a slow drip method) and a new technology called “Clover” which is essentially an automated hi tech machine that uses a vacuum action to draw the coffee through an alloy looking micro filter. The photo below shows some people being given a coffee tasting lesson at the slow bar.

Nicholas gave us a tour of the store and explained some of the thinking behind the concept. The take away for me was that this concept store exhibits many retail shop customer experience best practices that one would see in companies with iconic shop experiences, Apple, Lush or American Girl. It’s 1) interactive to engage, 2) educational to help transform, and 3) social to encourage meaningful relevant communication.

Ultimately what I took away was a vision of how the successful Starbucks experience could go to the next level. In the mid 90s, I had the fortune of advising a couple of local New York City coffee shops how to prepare themselves for the opening of a Starbucks on the same block. In a nutshell, what I advised was “be local” – you know your customers the best, make sure you amplify this knowledge in the experience you provide. Those that followed my advice thrived in face of the superior Starbucks financial might. So I was quite impressed with Starbucks playing with the idea of bringing more local flavour to its stores. Think of it as speaking one Starbucks language but with many different accents. I would still give similar advice to a small local competitor of a Starbucks. It’s just that in the instance that the Starbucks was similar in philosophy to The Bank; the local coffee shop’s experience would need to be even more tailored.

Is Starbucks The Bank perfect? No, of course not, no experience is. So what advice would I offer Starbucks? While I think the ideas expressed in The Bank are great, I would offer the following advice to Starbucks:

  • Individual store as the destination – Starbucks is a “destination brand” but few individual Starbucks stores are destinations in and of themselves apart from their convenient locations. I had always thought of the Starbucks experience as being founded on consistently 1) good product, 2) good location and 3) good service. However, it was never really about a particular store being the destination. This place showed me that Starbucks could develop individual locations as THE destination. This would not be practical for most of the Starbucks that can be found on most city blocks. Starbuck would need these to have a more personality as witnessed in The Bank.
  • Internal Experience Design – Starbucks has done a fantastic job as designing an overall consistent deliberate experience – especially the ordering experience. This is great for the average Starbucks shop. However, for a destination (concept) store like The Bank, more emphasis should be placed on designing special deliberate in-store experiences. Right now much of the work of the engagement is left to the architecture (as impressive as it is) and the individual enthused high EQ Starbucks employee. There is lots of opportunity for Starbucks to design in experience options that customers could trigger as they explore various aspects of the store.

I look forward to seeing what Starbucks does with the concepts they will trial in the Bank. It has certainly become a destination point for me in Amsterdam. I highly recommend giving The Bank a visit.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Qaalfa Dibeehi
Qaalfa Dibeehi is the author of "Achieving Customer Experience Excellence" and "Customer Experience Future Trends and Insights". He has 20+ years experience in the customer experience related space with particular emphasis on organisations that have a dual commercial and social/community responsibility. He is Non-Executive Director at Emerge. Previously, he was Chief Operating and Consulting Officer at Beyond Philosophy and Director at Fulcrum Analytics. He has an MBA from NYU and three other Masters Degrees from City U. of New York in Statistics, Psychology and Health Care Administration.


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