Source: Peter Merholz of Adaptive Path, Harvard Business School
Editor’s note: Peter continues the conversation he started here in his next post, Further Thoughts on Starbucks’ 15 Avenue Experiment)
Late last week, Starbucks opened a new coffeehouse. Considering they have around 15,000 outlets, this might not seem like news. But there’s a wrinkle: the new coffeehouse is called 15th Ave. Coffee & Tea, and is an attempt by SBUX to create a distinct, bespoke, of-the-neighborhood coffeehouse.
Two and a half years ago, Howard Schultz famously distressed over the “commoditization of the Starbucks experience,” and after returning as CEO, committed to transforming it.
But 15th Ave Coffee & Tea is an experiment doomed to failure, because there’s no way a corporate coffee chain can create an authentic neighborhood coffeehouse experience. Your favorite local coffeehouse is the product of someone’s passion, dedication, and probable borderline craziness. 15th Ave is the product of corporate product design and development. Read the introductory copy on the 15th Ave website:
Fresh roasted coffee. Tea picked from the far reaches of the world with care. Artisan baked breads and treats that are sure to delight. A little flair of Italia with some heavenly gelato or affogato. 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea brings these flavors of the world direct to your local neighborhood everyday.
This is so transparently corporate marketing speak. Compare it to the website of my favorite San Francisco coffeehouse,Farley’s, which is amateurish (and I mean that by its Latin root: done for the love) and personal:
Roger Farley Hillyard broke his coffee pot back in 1988 and could not find a store to purchase a replacement part. After scouring the city, Farley’s was conceptualized as a coffee and tea store. Through various incarnations, the present day concept of creating a place of community for the community was developed….The character of Farley’s mirrors the uniqueness of the people and allows for a genuine and distinctive experience for everyone.
Faking it is not a good strategy in bed or in retail.
Perhaps my biggest beef with 15th Ave is that it’s fundamentally dishonest. Everyone knows it’s run by Starbucks, but the website and the store do all they can to suggest it’s a true independent (though the high level of interior design suggests a bankroll out of the reach of most entrepreneurs).
So why not just call it “Starbucks”? About a year and a half ago, I posted on Adaptive Path’s blog about how Starbucks could improve its experience, and many of those ideas are being attempted with 15th Ave. Do the folks in corporate feel that the Starbucks brand is so brittle that it couldn’t encompass this experience?
It’s pretty clear that there’s a high degree of consternation about the associations people have with the Starbucks Experience. I find it foolish that they’re trying to re-engage the more sophisticated end of the coffeehouse market through this new, out-of-whole-cloth creation. What Starbucks needs is a series of “experience interventions” within their existing store framework.
Instead of expending efforts creating whole new experiences, prototype and iterate improvements on the existing experience. Keep fiddling until you’ve found something that hits your sweet spot, that lucrative space above Dunkin Donuts and McDonald’s, and below the quirky and sophisticated local roaster.
When I first heard about 15th Ave, I wanted to like it. I find plenty to admire about Starbucks — when I lived in Manhattan in the mid-90s, they did more to improve the quality of that city’s erstwhile swill than any other single factor. And I think it’s great when companies pilot new concepts, particularly those that are driven by improving experiences. But the clumsy cloak-and-dagger of how this “independent” store’s status was handled leaves such a foul taste that I can only assume it will go the way of Circadia, Starbucks’ failed, late-90s attempt at a similarly funky neighborhood coffeehouse that sold booze.
Howard, stop fiddling with these distractions. Focus on improving the core.
(For those further interested in retail experience design, Adaptive Path recently published a detailed case study of work we did with Mission Bicycles, a boutique fixed-gear bicycle retailer in San Francisco.)