Starbucks Should be Worried

starbucks.jpg Starbucks lives and dies by the experience that it provides, as they themselves and many others have said. That's the only thing which gives them permission to charge the prices they do. (IMHO, Peets Coffee and any number of local good cafes serve coffee that tastes better.)

Starbucks' problem is that they are letting their experience get away from them at the peripheries: airports, corporate installations that "Proudly Brew Starbucks", airlines, and so on. They are getting sloppy: the milk is too hot, the coffee brewed too weak or is burnt, espresso shots don't have the punch, the counters are filthy and messy, the supplies aren't stocked, the staff are impolite or poorly trained.

At one airport Starbucks I was waiting for a flight and ordered a tall double latte. There was a slip-up between order taker and the barista, meaning it didn't get made. When I pointed out that I was missing my latte, she interupted her sequence to make it for me, but made it a grande instead. I asked why, and she said it was to make up for the slip-up, she was giving me extra. In fact, I had ordered the tall on purpose, not because of price or size, but because that was the only way to prevent the taste from being too milky (due to the espresso shots being too weak). So she had to make it all over again, further delaying the other orders. I was ticked off as I now had less time to drink it, I'd had to have a frustrating conversation with someone operating inside a rules-based system, and the other passengers were upset too, I'm sure.

It's these kinds of interactions which have turned me off of going into regular Starbucks stores, except where there are no other choices. The poor experiences at the periphery get carried over into perceptions of the "real" stores.

Perhaps their infatuation with new opportunities like selling CD's at the stores and being in the movie business are distracting them from their core. Or perhaps their executives are not spending enough time really living the experiences they are selling, in all its variations. This happens a lot. I remember working with a wireless company a few years back where the executives used Blackberries instead of the phones the company was selling to customers at the time. They had no idea what actual customer experience they provided. Or if you've ever been to the "mothership" Best Buy or Target stores in Minneapolis, you'll know you get a phenomenal level of service there. Get a few hundred miles away from HQ and, hmm, not so much.

Love 'em or hate 'em, McDonalds has largely mastered this across-the-board consistency, albeit with a menu and an experience that doesn't aim as high to begin with so the expectations are lower.

The edges are great for finding innovation, but they are also where decay can occur. If management is not paying attention, or seeing only the rose-colored picture immediately in front of them, they'll miss it. Or worse yet, a competitor will exploit the edges with a superior offering.