Sunday, July 13, 2008

Why does Starbucks elicit such fury?

When Starbucks announced it would be closing 600 stores in the US, there was a sound akin to a victory howl from an apparently passionate slice of the world's population.

"Well who wants to pay $5 for a cup of jet fuel. It's about time this overrated chain met its mark," wrote a commenter on
USA Today's version of the story.

"I have a family member who worked for Starbucks in Seattle, but I don't feel bad seeing this greedy corporation hit its limit," notes a
Boston Globe reader.

Am I missing something here? What is it about Starbucks that
causes bile to rise in the throat; that excites people to heights of vitriol?

I know, I know; the same reasons come up repeatedly: the barista "
gives them the evil eye" when they forget the secret language and accidentally order a small coffee (has this ever happened to you? No, me neither); coffee is $4 (though my daily latte with soy milk and a shot is less than that, bizarrely enough); there's a branch on every corner. Yeah yeah yeah. Yawn.

This isn't about preferences of taste or brand loyalty. It's much more personal: Starbucks customers, it seems, are sheep, blindly throwing money at an evil corporation that has performed mass hypnotism on a dumb demographic.

At first glance, it seems that the main driver behind this fierce over-reaction is some kind of reverse snobbery; a suspicion that Starbucks is, in some insidious way, responsible for gentrification, political correctness, global warming and gay marriage. (See the second post on this Globe thread, for example.)

But why is Starbucks singled out? If the main issues are that it's expensive and elitist, surely there are plenty of other products just as deserving of hatred?

And yet no one blows a fuse at people who prefer Perrier to Poland Spring. No websites throw venom at Häagen-Dazs in quite the same manner
as they do at Starbucks. It's perfectly acceptable to spend $8 on a bar of chocolate, even though good ol' Hershey's is readily available. And while some people like to claim organic food is a crock, no one is likely to be, well, pelted with Monsanto tomatoes for buying pesticide-free heirloom varieties.

In other words, it's considered acceptable to spend your money however you choose when it comes to luxury food, as long as you're not wasting it on Starbucks coffee.

Leave it to
the Macedonians to put this ridiculous storm in a coffee cup into perspective.



Blogger Ben Brophy said...

Back in the 90s I heard people complain about Starbucks because they had run smaller coffee shops out of business -- which seemed reasonable -- and they bought their coffee at places like the 1369. Most of the people I've talked to in the last few years who complain about Starbucks now say they prefer Au Bon Pain or Dunkin' Donuts. At least Starbucks pays their workers decently and provides healthcare, I don't get why another chain is preferable.

9:32 AM  
Blogger LimeyG said...

Good point, Ben; the usual comparison is with Dunkies (or ABP or MacDonald's, which could be considered even more of an evil corporation) ...

1:20 PM  
Anonymous ian in hamburg said...

You might dismiss the complaints about how Starbucks is everywhere, but they're legitimate. Sure, North Americans go around expecting to be able to find the same service and the same food in Anchorage as they do in Alberta and Alabama, but in Europe it's the joy in finding diversity that makes the place special. Starbucks is just the latest and most visible of globalisation's endless march toward homogenising us all. I for one vote with my wallet and refuse to go there.

5:40 PM  
Anonymous ian in hamburg said...

Didn't I leave a comment here already? Oh well..

Wanted to say: it's not fury, it's a normal backlash. Who wants to live in a world where everything is the same wherever you go? Starbucks is everywhere. I'd say 600 closures is a good start, though of course that's countered with their expansion in Europe. In London it seems you can't stand anywhere without having one in your field of view. Awful.

5:29 AM  
Blogger LimeyG said...

Ian, I completely understand concerns about globalization.

I guess my point was that for most critics, the argument is not that Starbucks is part of the great American homogenization of the world, but that their products are expensive and unappealing; it's "Their coffee is crap so I'm glad they're are closing."

And as someone who grew up in a small town in northern England, where coffee meant "watered-down instant," I'm actually happy to have some standardization of quality.

Diversity is great, and I've certainly had excellent coffee in London and Paris (and Miami and New York).

But then again, the fact that Starbucks can do well even in Puerto Rico--where the price of coffee is regulated and every tiny cafe pulls a great espresso--suggests there's an audience for consistency. I don't think it's my place to decide whether or not that's right or wrong.

2:01 PM  

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