Is Starbucks Evil?

When I was talking to Jan last week, we had discussed, in passing, the nature of Starbucks. Voracious readers of Our Story will recall that I’m a Starbucks fan. From the drinks to the wireless access, I just really enjoy taking the laptop in, plopping down in an overstuffed chair, and spending an hour or so hanging out.

Sarah and I discovered last week that there’s a Starbucks right around the corner from The Village Church, on Greenwich Avenue. I mentioned to Jan that this was a strong draw to come back to the church and she balked, exclaiming, “Starbucks is evil!” The rationale goes something like this: Starbucks has a stated business objective to put any and all competition out of business—especially targeting small-business comptetitors. What probably goes hand-in-hand with this argument is that Starbucks is a multinational corporation who leads an extremely well-branded marketing campaigns and has a track record of putting local businesses into bankruptcy court—much in the same way that Walmart and the Home Depot have done to competing businesses.

But, is this really evil? I mean, I work for a multinational corporation. We have a brand strategy. One of our stated objectives is to crush our competition. That’s business. You don’t go into the market to “kinda” get marketshare from your competitors, any more than the Nets “kinda” want to beat the Celtics.

However—I know—it’s not all that simple. In a world where power is on the side of the oppressors (cf. Ecclesiastes 4), the powers of business need to be checked. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Global business has a track record of disregarding human rights issues to protect their own bottom line—justice-based business initiatives cut into profits.

What’s more difficult is that people are wrestling with the concept of America as a corporately branded culture in the 21st century. This is may not be an unfamiliar concept to you, but what “will really bake your noodle later on is,” can you even fathom what it would be to not live in a branded culture? Try it, just for a minute. Can you imagine not growing up with Thundercats and that great Eye of Thundera logo? Or, not aligning yourself with the car company whose product you drive? Or, not drooling over the latest Apple-branded gadget (okay, some of you may not have to imagine that)? :) What must life have been for people who, even a hundred years ago, didn’t have such prevalent signs and logos?

Anyway, I don’t have answers to these questions. So, I turned to Google. (Insert brand irony here). The top ten-or-so hits returned these articles which, if nothing else, provide something to think about:

* PuntiveArt: Starbucks – Chain != Evil. The main complaint I hear about Starbucks is that they put the indies out of business. Sometimes they do, other times they don’t. From all the indies I hung out in, I can tell you most of them deserved to go out of business. Average coffee, horrible service, minimal selection.
* Fluffybunny: Bringing Down Starbucks… one latte at a time. The third trip found me again facing the smirking barista who called into question my right to use another coupon. The coupon’s only stated limitation was one per visit so I politely pointed out the fine print and told him not to skimp on the froth. He grudgingly served me my coffee and I smiled my warmest ‘season’s greetings’ to him before turning away.
* ihatestarbucks.com: Why do I, personally, hate Starbucks? I hate them because their coffe sucks and they are everywhere. You cant escape them.
* Ocean Beach Grassroots Organization: Starbucks not welcome in OB. Since March 2001, thousands of activists have taken part in protests and leafleting events outside $tarbucks cafes in over 300 cities in the US, Canada, New Zealand and England. Man, these guys are passionate about this. Lots of links here, too.
* Starbucks: Corporate Social Responsibility. Giving back to our communities is the way we do business. Contributing positively to our communities and environment is so important to Starbucks it is listed as a guiding principle of the companys mission. Partners at all levels are involved in this initiative in a number of areas, helping to improve resources and well-being in our surroundings.

When deep space exploration ramps up, itll be the corporations that name everything: the IBM stellar sphere, the Microsoft galaxy, Planet Starbucks.Fight Club

Update: More reading:

* Starbucks: 2002 10-K. Net revenues increased 24% from $2.6 billion in fiscal 2001 to $3.3 billion in fiscal 2002, primarily due to the Companys store expansion program and comparable store sales increases…As a result of its expansion strategy of clustering stores in existing markets, Starbucks has experienced a certain level of cannibalization of sales of existing stores by new stores as store concentration has increased…This cannibalization, as well as increased competition, slowing economies and other factors, may put downward pressure on the Companys comparable store sales growth in future periods. I went looking for this after Ryan mentioned it in his comment. Starbucks 24% net revenue growth is astounding, especially when one considers that this is accounting for “downward pressure” of Starbucks’ “cannibalization” growth strategy.
* Hoover’s: Starbucks Corporation Profile. Starbucks’ strategy is simple: Establish its name everywhere. Chairman Howard Schultz estimates the coffee company will hit 20,000 stores before it lets up. Having conquered the US, the company is invading Europe… Note: don’t bother clicking on the link unless you have or want to purchase Hoover’s premium offerings.

5 thoughts on “Is Starbucks Evil?

  1. Jai

    Yeah baby! You reference the N-E-T-S, NETS NETS NETS! Since the Knicks suck, I gotta lay my loyaty to these guys from my homestate, especially since Cablevision finally carries the Yes Network – where I can finally watch a season of the Nets for free… well… for $2/mo extra on my cable bill (personally, for the Yankees and Nets, I won’t complain about that rate hike)…

    Anyway, about teh Starbucks(tm) stuff… I dunno, ’cause I don’t drink coffee ;) (but I still apreciate being offered coffee), but their raspberry hot chocolate sucks and makes my tummy gurgle…

    I agree that there is nothing inherently wrong with crushing the competition, but I really appreciate your objectivity and observation:

    “In a world where power is on the side of the oppressors (cf. Ecclesiastes 4), the powers of business need to be checked. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

    Well noted… So if a company, lets take the one you work at, has a purpose of being top dog, that’s fine- so long as they do not fall into this trap of placing obsessive monopolization over human compassion.

    By the way K, did I mention that I miss The Real Kenny(tm)… Call me sometime, you know the #!

  2. Ryan Abrams

    Ken,

    The success of starbucks is not what makes many consider them “evil” – In all honesty, it’s not usually the success of microsoft which pisses many off either. It’s the methods… not the results.

    If Starbucks put indies out of business through making a better product, good for them. That’s not how they do it. They have a defined method for entry into a marketplace. They call it cluster bombing.

    First, they go into a market and find the leading indie coffee shops. Then they go to the landlord for the coffeshop, and buy the lease out from under them, and replace that shop with a Starbucks. The existing shop then has to move, or go out of business. In the rare case that they cannot buy the lease, they open several starbucks around the shop.. pretty much one on each corner.. and heavily promote to draw the crowd.

    That’s just phase one. After that, they get as many franchisees as they can, and open a starbucks /everywhere/ – Thats why there are so many of them. They continue doing this until the starbucks themselves are unsustainable. They literally grow until the sheer number of them puts some out of business… darwinism in a business model. This of course screws the franchisees, who’s parent company is essentially flooding their market… but presumably they know this.

    This tactic works. If you are faced with a starbucks on every corner vs. your favorite coffee shop being a 20 minute walk, what happens? You may go to your favorite shop once in a while for the full experience, or great coffee… but when you are in a rush on the way to work, you will likely just grab what’s available. Starbucks.

    That last bit is what Starbucks counts on, but it’s also not evil. Availability is just an added value. It’s a fair method of competition (unlike buying someones lease, which is scummy and potentially evil)

    The other thing that many complain about is starbucks employee practices. They use a centralized computer system which generates a schedule for each shop based on traffic and peak times at the shop. This is great for starbucks and revenue, but since the schedule doesn’t take into account regularity or employee requests (other than perhaps time off), it essentially creates a random schedule for the low paid starbucks employees which prevents them from holding down a second job. This scheduling side effect is seemingly intended by starbucks, in order to keep people from working elsewhere. But they also carefully prevent people from working more than the maximum hours for being listed as part time. Which means you can’t get a job elsewhere, but you also can’t get overtime. Many will say “they can just go find another job” – but people who say that aren’t living in the real world. Yes, in theory they could – but how? They dont have a stable schedule, and they have bills. They have no stability at work because they are not full time, not capable of becoming full time, and essentially work-at-will style employees. It’s a mess.

    The last thing that annoys many about starbucks is incidental. They are a symptom of a larger trend towards homogenizing of culture. Starbucks is part of the disneyfication of the world. America is a gorgeous country geologically. It is amazing to look at the variations in terrain, and in the few remaining untouched areas, it can reach true beauty. But most of america is truly ugly. Every city across the country looks mostly the same, especially out of downtown. Just big cheap boxes holding the same stuff, and all the same neon signs serving the same pre-packaged foods. It’s a cultural wasteland geared only towards making people think they don’t have enough in their life and “need” more to be happy – but the trick is that “more” is infinite, so people are constantly hitting the button for another pellet until they either get huge and die (common), give up and get depressed (increasingly common, especially since there is commercial pressure to sell anti-depressants, increasing the number of depression diagnoses in the first place), or figure out the game (somewhat common) and either play it (most common) or try to find a way out (rare) – It’s a sick thing we’ve built in the past 150 or so years. And there is a way out. Check out adbusters (which I know you already have) – Check out free software. Support it.

    All of this doesn’t mean you can never go to starbucks. It doesn’t mean you can’t wear nike or visit disney world. These things are designed to please you and make you want them. The reason people eat fast food is because it tastes so darn good. The important thing is that you realize the consequences of your actions, and you are self aware as you partake of the broken bits in our culture. Then do something to fix it.

    This rant should probably have gone on my blog, but it would have likely been out of context. ;)

  3. Pete

    Nets VS Knicks or whatever is not the same thing at all. When one of them loses a game they still get paid, and go on to play another game. When a business goes bankrupt this does not happen. The former owners and workers become debt-ridden and poor.

    Also, to ratify a practice with the argument of ‘That’s business’ is not an acceptable argument, and is like justifying a shooting by saying ‘That’s murder’.
    Of course the practice is in line with business as you know it, but the point is surely that business as you know it is wrong. The business is what is evil, not Starbucks itself. The physical entity that is the shop has no evil power over anything, it is the business behind the shop that people say is evil. So yes, ‘That’s business’.
    Anything that knowingly causes others harm can be justifiably called evil.

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