Starbucks, Apple, Disney. These three big brands represent a kind of gold standard in modern, streamlined business. Each of these Western American companies is a global enterprise with a history of activating radical ideas. Starbucks brought premium coffee, tea and other products to retailing while re-creating the cafe and restaurant as a creative and meeting place as part of a whole, new mobile lifestyle. Apple brought superior design, functionality and quality in computers to technology. Disney brought wholesomeness, consistency and integration in storytelling to motion pictures. Each company became legendary by being driven by a single individual. Each brand challenged and smashed the status quo, failed and made mistakes, improved and went on to become a worldwide symbol of excellence in lifestyle, technology and entertainment.
Each is also fallible. In fact, I have criticized all three in separate, previous posts. But these are outstanding American businesses deserving recognition for exceptional innovation and achievement. Each big business generally honors their prime movers Howard Schultz, Steve Jobs and Walt Disney. That said, as with any business, including my own, each also runs the risk of not minding the store.
Or, in the case of Starbucks, not minding the store by way of drifting from a focus on the store toward, instead, minding customers’ privacy. Recently, and this week in earnest, the coffee company started requiring a customer’s first and last name, e-mail address and postal ZIP code in order to access its free wi-fi through Google. Accepting terms and conditions now grants permission to let Google-Starbucks track your computer, which each Starbucks store will remember for the next and subsequent visits. Supposedly, there’s an opt-out but it isn’t clear how. As a Starbucks customer, loyalty rewards member and enthusiast, I find the company’s recent shift away from adding lifestyle value toward mining and collecting data disturbing. It suggests a breach of the Starbucks commitment to earning customer loyalty.
This is especially true given the glut of recent, chronic and persistent problems with daily operations at Starbucks, specifically the retailer’s failure to:
- Get transactions right, including honoring the 10-cent personal cup discount. I understand that pricing varies by store location. But baristas ring up the wrong price too often by my experience. Others have noticed overcharges, too. The personal cup discount is typically not honored in my experience. When I use one during visits, I’ve now taken to reminding the barista in advance. It’s part of an overall trend I’ve noticed in which the customer essentially is increasingly put in a position to have to know more than the employee.
- Bus and clean store tables.
- Take reasonable measures to preserve space for customers and protect them from harm. I’ve encountered several conflicts at various Starbucks stores and witnessed many more. During one incident, when I sat down at a shared table to eat and drink products I’d purchased, a seated person who’d been squatting at the table with his stuff, none of it from Starbucks, threatened me and told me to leave. When I explained that it was the only available seat in the store, he became violent, pounding the table and physically lifting and shoving the table into me. Starbucks employees did nothing, despite audible gasps and everyone expressing alarm at the outburst. A couple came over and invited me to take a seat after they left because they’d decided to leave in light of the meltdown. At a store in Hollywood, a security guard and employees did nothing while the store was robbed with the store packed with families, customers and tourists. In Old Town Pasadena this winter, two homeless men started fighting over a table. Thugs, criminals and squatters, who sometimes don’t buy anything but use space, go unreported or unpunished, which is a real problem. The company’s apparent conflict avoidance policy may lead to loss of revenue and store closures as has happened to other lax retailers such as Borders. I’ve called, written and complained to Starbucks. In my experience, they don’t really listen, respond or address, let alone resolve, this serious problem.
- The above might be no big deal if you drink the company’s coffee at home or work but ordering products online is off limits because, recently, Starbucks ceased to operate an online store. With few exceptions, products now must be bought in stores.
- This, too, might not pose a problem if you pre-order using the app or have no need to meet, dine in or take a seat at Starbucks’ stores. Assuming you’re able to avoid crime, harassment, hassles, threats and stay out of harm’s way, while employees stand by, good luck finding the product you want. Frequently, Starbucks does not supply what’s in demand. This goes for beverages, food and Via or Verismo products. Often, they’re out of stock for days, even weeks. This applies, in my experience, to stores across the country, from Hawaii to Pennsylvania.
- Good luck asking for supply information, help or about the menu. Poorly trained baristas don’t know the menu, pricing and basic facts. Morale among employees strikes me as pretty low across the board. Complaining baristas are everywhere, often at loud volume, griping about the labor, company policies, reduction in shift hours, other employees, even customers’ tipping.
- About that tipping point. Whether you pay by app, Apple Pay, cash or credit card, a tip can be added at the customer’s discretion. I’ve noticed that employees — many, if not most, of whom get 100 percent company payment of health plan premiums (which may be why Starbucks prices keep rising) — act as though a tip is an entitlement. Starbucks ought to strive to acknowledge that tipping is an option, not a prerequisite for service.
- Sometimes, baristas fail to get the order right. Not very often in my experience and, to be fair, theirs is a large, constantly changing menu. But in as often as over half the orders I place, usually involving food, beverage and a glass of water, part of the order is missing or wrong. Again, as with most of the above problems and, I suspect, stemming from a general problem within Starbucks’ subculture, this is a fixable challenge. The basic value proposition for a premium coffee experience rooted in lifestyle, as Starbucks is rightly proud to offer, is to get the customer’s order exactly and consistently right.
I’ve tried to encourage Starbucks by calling customer service, speaking with managers, store and district, filling out surveys (of which there is no apparent end, making me wonder who reads, processes and evaluates those results). Maybe Starbucks is having growing pains. Maybe Starbucks, which has launched bold initiatives and changed the culture with its lifestyle brand, has started to run its course. In any case, Starbucks can do better. I’m rooting for the company to meet its demands, make money and succeed. I hope this post helps.