The Starbucks mystique

Written by Dilip Bobb | Updated: Nov 4 2012, 09:15am hrs
Starbucks finally opened its first outlet in Mumbai last fortnight and the place has been packed ever since. The Baristas, Cafe Coffee Days and Costas suddenly seem orphaned. That may change once the novelty value wears off, but it shows just how powerful the Starbucks mystique has become. What is it about Starbucks that gives it such a special aura Other big-name coffee outlets look the same, their coffee tastes pretty similar, the range of beverages and merchandise is pretty well matched and the service in some is more intimate. Yet, walk through any high street anywhere in the world, and the one which has the biggest crowds and the longest queues will be the 40-year-old Seattle-based chain. Thats precisely what is happening in Mumbai right now.

Universally, it is a brand that comes with a unique cachet, an undefinable allure that only very few global names carry. The Indian outlet has some clues as to what makes Starbucks differentfriendly workers take orders from customers in the queue and relay it via headsets to the baristas behind the counter, but even so, the unceasing crowds, despite the higher prices, means that stopping for a latte will involve a major investment of time. That doesnt seem to bother customers, though. No wonder its the largest coffeehouse company in the world, with 19,972 stores in 61 countries, including 12,937 in the United States alone.

Heres what makes it so different. In Mumbai and elsewhere, they are competing with other established coffee chainseven McDonalds sells a pretty decent cup of coffeebut in America, their biggest market, their outlets compete against each other. I walked down a street in downtown New York last year and counted four Starbucks on one block alone (one advertised itself as the busiest Starbucks in New York!). What they sell apart from a range of coffees, other beverages and eatables, is an experience, warm, fuzzy, friendly, and geared to the generation which refuses to go anywhere where there is no wi-fi access for their tablets, smartphones or laptops. All Starbucks offer wi-fi, most are free, while some sell a loyalty card that grants wireless access at a discounted rate. Among coffee lovers, its a badge of honour.

The interior design of their stores are geared to that end. There are always people sitting at the tall wooden chairs by the windows pecking away on their laptops long after their Frappuccino has finished. No one will ask them to move along. Then theres the music, always well chosen. Starbucks also makes a big deal about its environmental concerns and recycling projects, so green warriors get a special kick in spending at Starbucks. Most of all, theres the quality of coffee, from high quality beans sourced locally (the Indian outlet gets it from their partner, Tata). Other chains do that as well but somehow Starbucks seems to taste that bit different.

The undefinable extra they offer is called atmosphere. Their baristas are always well trained and ever smiling, and the design has that expert mix of tradition and trendy, unbeatable in a country like India, with its predominantly young population. No matter where you are in the world, their extensive coffee menu will taste exactly the same. Then theres creativity. That they have successfully invaded countries that are traditionally tea drinkers is a testament to their mystique and strategy. They have over 600 outlets in China and their biggest seller is a coffee they developed that is a green-tea flavoured coffee!

In most countries, there is the status symbol that comes with carrying a styrofoam cup of Starbucks. It has positioned itself as a premium coffee house chain and it seems to work.

Further, its homely, air-conditioned interiors have become a hip meeting place for executives looking to discuss business away from the restrictions of an office. Its tough to find a place that can attract the nerds as well as the hard-headed business types.

One reason for that are the premium locations that Starbucks almost always insists on. That is why the connection with Tata in India is so important. The flagship Mumbai outlet is located in the historic Elphinstone Building in Hornimam Circle in south Mumbai (owned by Tata.) Two more outlets will open next week, one in another historic building, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel (also Tata owned), and another at the Oberoi across town. Delhi will have to wait till early 2013 for their first Starbucks.

The Mumbai store embodies all that is special about the brand. Its a vast, cool, space with hand carved wooden screens, painted vintage trunks and vintage-looking leather bound books, all geared to create the atmosphere of a drawing room rather than a coffee shop. The plan is to roll out 50 Starbucks outlets across India over the next two months. That may seem like a tall order, but if the Mumbai experience is any indication, India may have discovered a new star in Starbucks.

The writer is Group Editor, Special Projects & Features, The Indian Express