Work in Progress

Baseball, Seminary, Wrestling, and the Dreams and Days of one Mike Work's Angeles experience

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Coffee Shop Phenomenon

Here's what crossed my mind while walking back from the java filling station, a small coffee shop in pasadena, on the corner of colorado and marengo. Visited for the first time today, and will go back...good stuff.

Here's what i thought:
We humans live in this cycle of action, reflection, and perception (which can all occur in a split-second, or over a prolonged period of time). Our patterns of life, habits, and routines play key roles in shaping our perceptions of reality, which influence our future actions. This is illustrated in the coffee shop phenomenon.

Within a two mile radius with endpoints at my house and my gym, i can think of at least eight coffee shops, and i'm sure that there're more that i know of. Yet what's the first option when talking about getting coffee with somebody? Almost invariably, Starbucks is mentioned within the first minute or two of the conversation, because it's the one we see, or have been trained to see.

Questions for reflection:
Disclaimer: I've began to think through these and have made some links and connections, but it's not reflected here. So the implications and questions may make a lot more sense to me than to anyone else. Still, open season on the comments.

How do we learn to see beyond the ingrained?

What is a small-business owner to do in the face of the hegemony of Starbucks?

For a corporation, they're fairly-humane...akin to America...not too bad for a superpower, but certainly, CERTAINLY, not without flaws and inconsistencies. do the mom-and-pops stay afloat and thrive? What do we see?


  • At 8:08 AM, Anonymous Kevin said…

    Work, good thoughts...I have a piece to add to this dialog. Starbucks is easy mostly because we know that there is one within 2 blocks...and they haven't saturated their market yet. In that case, they provide us with ease and we have no need for experimentation, we know the coffee sucks, but it is better than some and way worse than others. Frankly, most people don't like to shop around.

    How can the Mom and Pops do well? I have contended that Mom & Pops are basically screwed if a Starbucks opens near them, unless they have already carved out an incredible niche. But...if a coffee shop opens by Starbucks, with its niche in mind and offers just the variety that their niche wants, they can pull customers from Starbucks. Atmosphere will tell it all.

    There is no way a mom & pop shop can pull the turn-over that a single starbucks can. I know probably close to every Starbucks along the 210 from Claremont to Eagle Rock. Why? Because they make it easy.

    Now, about the good things of Starbucks, if you are a mom & pop shop that is NOT a coffee shop, you are blessed to have Starbucks move into the same shopping complex. I frequented a Christian bookstore back home, but once I started heading the Starbucks that was 3 stops down, my foot traffic in the Christian bookstore was nearly daily. That's good news for a tiny store.

    As for training people to be non-Starbucks will have to make the suggestion every time, and set up ritual coffee visits with people. Once they get into the rythm, they will start moving away from the Bucks.

  • At 10:53 AM, Blogger mune said…

    Regarding the small business owner, I think many views of their problem assume that Starbucks only steals customers from an already existing customer base. I don’t think this is the case. Starbucks has created a culture of grabbing a cup of coffee at a coffee shop. Granted this activity existed long before Starbucks, but Starbucks has made it mainstream. Starbucks has sold the bulk of America on what a fine idea coffee shops are. No longer is such an activity limited to the fringe. So to a degree, many of the mom-and-pops have benefited in Starbucks legitimization of what their business. Granted Starbucks has the ability to kill a M&P that has not carved out a firm niche, but that likely was not the strongest business. I’m not a fan of Starbucks, but I have been in many of those and wished I was at a Starbucks. Starbucks does a number of things well. The coffee is always solidly mediocre. (I don’t like it, but it’s always drinkable.) They also actually manage to create a half-decent (though extremely corporate) ambiance. And they will let you play cards at their tables, unlike some ‘finer’ coffee shops in the LA area.

    In CA, we get the legendary Charles Shaw wine. It is not a great wine, but it is drinkable. It has caused quite a ruckus amongst winegrowers, who think their business is being hurt by an inferior product. They might be right, but it is also putting wine into the hand of consumers who would likely be unwilling or unable to regular toss down at least double that for a bottle. It is creating a firm group of wine drinkers who will eventually look upstream.

    I suppose all that I am saying is that business is complex and I don’t think Starbucks can just be viewed as having one, immediate effect on M&P’s. Eventually people want better coffee. We already expect more from coffee than our parents, and eventually we might discover coffee that isn’t burnt and environments that aren’t so corporate.

  • At 8:02 AM, Blogger Scott J. Pearson said…

    How do we learn to see beyond the ingrained? Simple: acquire taste. I use Mac OSX for personal computing because I've learned to have a high taste in computers, to sense what quality means. I buy my clothes from Land's end because their clothes last.

    The key to seeing beyond the ingrained is thinking for yourself. Too many people associate rebellion (i.e., going against the flow) as going against the ingrained. It's not because the ingrained still determines the outcome. The key to getting good coffee is not going to a mom-and-pop but appreciating what quality coffee tastes like. If a corp. offers it, so be it; if a mom-and-pop (i.e., tomorrow's chain) offers it, so be it. That's the best of capitalism, letting the best one win.

  • At 5:37 PM, Anonymous wess said…

    Good post Workie, I think, and maybe I am an Idealist in this, that small buisnesses can win by having good quality, and fair practices. We should also support those buisnesses that treat their employees well (are they happy to be there) and have good feedback from the community. Just a thought.

  • At 8:56 PM, Blogger work said…

    Thanks for the comments guys, quite helpful, and i really appreciate your thoughtful engagement.

    Kev, i'd overlooked the role of starbucks in re-vitalizing the business of other stores in a complex, and it's worth thinking about. iirc, that's one of the driving factors behind their 'urban coffee' partnership with magic johnson's development company.

    I'd agree that suggesting alternatives every time out is the way to get other possibilities into minds, my own included; while i'm aware of Equator in Old Town Pasadena, and will stop in if passing by, it doesn't immediately come to mind unless a buddy suggests it a couple times.

    Brian, i'd agree that that's the genius behind the buck. They have popularized a culture of coffee-drinking as a social activity, to the extent that people actually have 'coffee' as a line-item on their budget. They run their business well, providing some nice amenities and creating an experience which sells customers on them just as much as the coffee, in fact masking the fact that the coffee's not necessarily top-of-the-line.

    Scott, i think i hear what you're saying; we may be in different conversations at the moment, but i'm seeing connection points. i'm thinking about casual folks moreso than coffee connoisseurs, who already want good coffee and will seek out the best of it. Piggybacking off the first two comments, persons have somehow become hard-wired to want to drink coffee, but don't know what to look for. It's not that difficult to educate ourselves, but we're still lazy, and don't even think about thinking for ourselves. While it's really not 'too much work,' that's the perception that needs to be overcome.

    When that's the starting point, how do we learn and acquire taste? How'd you learn to acquire taste in certain areas, and what impelled you to do so?

    Wess, you hit what i was thinking about. When starting a business, what's going to help it succeed and pull in walk-in traffic, particularly when doing something that another (larger) company is known for?

    Good quality is vital; i can get sludge in the high school teacher's lounge (in fact, that's what caused me to go cold-turkey for six months, realizing that i was drinking really bad coffee in the morning, simply because it was there), and most of the time, can make a good cup. Why should i go out of my way to buy coffee? If there's a business that tends to make it better than me and my machine, there's a good chance that i'll do so (although i'm still not much of a judge of the particulars of coffee).

    Fair treatment of workers, both on-site and off (thinking Fair Trade phenomenon here) is also vital. Starbucks is particularly good in the first area, enough that i consider them as an employer due to their benefits program. The second level is the one which is particularly tricky; cutting corners is financially lucrative, and the guys picking the beans aren't on most people's radars, so plenty of businesses do it without reprecussions (case #1- the garment industry). What would be sufficient motivation to maintain our idealism when skimping seems to work?

    In store, personalized service is a big plus for the customer, and that's a lot more likely when workers enjoy their job. The smaller guys have the opportunity to get to know their customers in a way that Starbucks' volume of traffic doesn't necessarily promote (although i can think of a few baristas who remembered things about me that stunned me), but if they treat their employees like crap, that window closes quickly.

    Other little incentives to get people back through the doors include things like punch cards that reward customer loyalty; irrational as it may be, when i find one of these in my pocket, i set the goal of finishing the card...and spending more money in the process.

    Starbucks doesn't have to do these things, because they have the market share and are already in the front of people's minds, but incentives to return, when combined with a quality product and appealing atmosphere, could help pull in walk-in traffic keep customers who haven't already locked in on Starbucks, and in some cases pull them in another direction.

    Here's another hunch turned question:

    Is a walkable city or downtown area more conducive to the success of a beginning small business than a city area where driving is the norm?

    I think so; people are more likely to go out of their way or pop into a hole in the wall while walking than when driving, where the big names and signs are visible and the smaller stores are not (unless they go the 'visibility by annoyance' route and hire somebody to wave a stack of signs with an arrow).


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