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Why Starbucks Stinks.

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on January 8, 2008

I see that founder Howard Schultz is returning as CEO to Starbucks and have some advice for him. All good brands are relationships, not just products, and Starbucks’ relationship with me and millions of other people has gone from amazing to awful.

I went into the big Starbucks on the route to work in NYC today—and left within five seconds. The single line was huge and looked like a 10-minute wait for me. The Starbucks employees, with their fancy headgear, were looking at each other and not the customers. I thought, for a microsecond, I’m going to feel like a sausage on an assembly line, waiting, talking to people not paying attention, then waiting again. And for what? A cup of coffee? It was all so transactional. I don’t need Starbucks for that.

Now contrast that to a recent trip I had to Portland, Oregon where I had a wonderful, now-traditional Starbucks experience at a small store. Employees were friendly, they knew all their customers (except me) from the neighborhood, didn’t wear the microphone headgear, looked at you. They made a relationship with the customer, even walk-ins. That I like. I stayed, ordered food, ran up the bill, my friend flipped open his computer, we stayed a while. Good.

It’s the kind of experience I always have at Peets in Portland.

So you still have a chance, Howard. In your company’s race to make more money, it is sacrificing its relationship with customers and eroding its brand value. That relationship, not new products, is what will make or break your company. So bring back my Starbucks experience in NYC, OK?

Reader Comments

Rob Thompson

January 8, 2008 4:00 PM

You have posted a few negative stories about starbucks now and I was wondering when you are going to stop going there? What keeps you going to them? I know they can be really hard to avoid in NYC. Just Curious.


January 8, 2008 5:52 PM

Two words: service design.

It shouldn't take Howard too long to figure out that the lines in his stores contain 'coffee with the works' fanatics on one end of the spectrum and people desiring much less complex products on the other.

When I go for a cup of coffee or tea and a chocolate at Starbucks I often have to wait in line behind ten people ordering half de-caf double frappuchinos with bells & whistles I have never even heard of but take 10 mins to prepare.

A place like Peet's could easily rival Starbucks on the lower end of the premium coffee market (but, as you say, with a more personal touch).

Blue Star

January 8, 2008 6:41 PM

I no longer go to Starbuck's. The service is now awful, where it once was very good. The coffee tastes like motor oil, where it once was also very good. And they are always running out of what you want. WaWa always has what you want and if they run out, they are more than willing to make it for you fresh. That is all.

Pete Mortensen

January 8, 2008 7:26 PM

A shame that Peet's hasn't moved out to New York yet? They used to be small, but I thought they were the No. 2 chain behind Starbucks these days. Once a single shop in Berkeley, and I've seen them as far east as Chicago.

Jim Caffeine

January 8, 2008 9:46 PM

You're blaming Starbucks because a lot of people go there for coffee and you might have to wait ten minutes? I'm not a big fan of the chain, but this column doesn't make sense. What are you saying -- go to a sleepy Portland coffee shop if you want eye contact from baristas?

Steve Mann

January 8, 2008 11:07 PM

Its a shame that an organization like Starbucks who rose to prominence on their customer's shoulders, doesn't know beans (pun intended) about Designing and Inhouse Real Time customer experience that makes sense. They need a team of ethnographers, architects and designers to do a serious overhaul of the in store experience and oh by the way, teach the baristas to make real coffee!


January 8, 2008 11:08 PM

There's a lot of variation from store-to-store in both staff attitude and ability. The SBUX found inside grocery stores is universally awful on both counts, though.

Michael Mallari

January 8, 2008 11:09 PM

As an MBA student, I've spent many hours not just at one, but perhaps two or three Starbucks stores as a part of my daily routine. Starbucks has become a home where I can drink a delicious cup of coffee, work on my computer, study, and possibly meet a friend. If I can do all four during my Starbucks visit, I enjoyed my Starbucks experience.

I'm paying almost $4 for my usual order of tall mocha. In all likelihood, I visit Starbucks at least five days a week. At the very minimum (and I'm being very conservative), I'm generating a revenue of $1,040 per year. I would not be surprised if I spend $2,000 - $3,000 a year on Starbucks products.

Who is willing to pay this premium for a cup of coffee? Well Mr. Schultz, I am only willing to pay this premium if I can have an enjoyable Starbucks experience.

When I visited a Starbucks store a few years ago, I was served by attentive and friendly baristas. They took care of their customers, in what appears, as an effort to represent a company that they enjoyed working for. When inventory was low and my order was fulfilled, I received a voucher for a free drink for my next visit. Restrooms were clean, room temperature was really room temperature, and noise level was reasonable.

These days, I hold my breathe when I use the restrooms. I compete with the noise level when I talk on the phone (let alone study). And I wonder if the inadequate room temperature is an effort to push customers out in order to manage store cleanliness. Now, when I visit Starbucks and before I buy anything, I observe and then decide whether I will stay.

What happened to Starbucks' relationship equity? Value equity and brand equity is insufficient for Starbucks to retain its customers. A return to building the customer experience will be the winning strategy for Mr. Schultz.

Bobby Clark

January 8, 2008 11:29 PM


I feel the same way you do, however, it's not Starbucks you are talking about, but rather very busy, en-route-to-work, rush hour Starbucks, that you speak of. I live in Portland and every Starbucks I have been in to is quiet with good customer service/employee-customer banter, etc. The difference is that I'm not going during rush-hour.

I assume that you were in Portland on vacation and thus weren't on a 9-5 worker schedule and thus didn't go to Peets during rush hour. If you had, you would have found a line, a wait, and perhaps less barista-customer interaction than you would have liked.

I'm with Jim Caffeine, this article makes no sense. You're comparing apples and oranges. And just so you know, Starbucks didn't create the need for employees to wear headsets and make assembly-line coffee, the sheer number of customers did.


January 8, 2008 11:40 PM

10-minute waiting line for coffee at Starbucks means that people still flock to Starbucks. It seems like people go there almost reflexively, unless they know some other place serving coffee.

Renee Cappuccino

January 9, 2008 12:40 AM

I love their coffee and all. Especially around the holidays. But it is very true that the line and service can take really long. Its Good thing that Starbucks is starting to make seperate buildings, which should allow for more workers and ease up lines. All you can do is hope for the best instead of making negative comments.


January 9, 2008 1:28 AM

its not the employee's that take long, its the customers on their cell phone, then fumbling for there money. I feel like I always get expceptional customer service at starbucks, its because of Starbucks that other coffee shops even exsist. It is still a great company with great employee's. Oh yeah the price of stock is low.. GO BUY NOW!

Yvonne DiVita

January 9, 2008 1:40 AM

Our Starbucks are fine. I like them... but have started going to Panera Bread more often. But, sometimes it isn't the's the location. McDonald's is the same way - some are great, others not so great. I guess cloning doesn't work with inanimate objects.


January 9, 2008 1:52 AM

Totally agree with Otto. The "fancy" orders ruin the show for the plain ol' coffee drinkers. Unfortunately in many parts of the city it's Starbucks vs. deli/cart brownwater. The decision's getting more difficult though... I'd love a hole in the wall Peet's that *just* sold coffee. Dare to dream...

and while dreaming, time limits on camping laptop'ers would be nice too. It's impossible to find seats in many cafes as they've now become full-time offices for many people. I realize such a change is very unlikely. Though maybe a small chain could use it as a "gimmick".

I'm also confused as to what relevance a small local coffee shop in Portland has to a midtown Manhattan location at rush-hour that probably does the Portland shop's daily volume in 20 minutes. It would be hard to say Starbucks hasn't opened a whole lot of locations in Manhattan either...

alex castellarnau

January 9, 2008 2:39 AM

and meanwhile McDonalds will install espresso machines an hire baristas for its 14000 locations in the US. Maybe instead of Starbucks or Peet's we'll all end up there.

Frank J

January 9, 2008 6:02 AM


Your story does not make sense. Why don't you compare Starbuck's in Seattle or Portland to

1) Starbucks in New York or 2) Peets' in New York (which probably does not exist)! or 3) Peets' in Portland. I agree they should train the people in New York. But this does not happen in Seattle where the service is much better and where the atmosphere is pleasant and friendly.


January 9, 2008 1:46 PM

I went into a Star bucks the other day and ordered my usual white mocha and a cappuccino for my boyfriend. They had no idea what a cappuccino was! Had to order him a mocha.


January 9, 2008 2:52 PM

In London their is a coffee house chain similar to starbucks named Puccino's. Its a delight to grab a cup in the morning and be treated like an individual. Better yet they have hilarious write ups on their containers and packaging. Do youself a favor and check this out.

The Caffeinated Cat

January 9, 2008 3:31 PM

I live in Colorado and am a regular visitor to downtown Denver Starbucks locations. What I have found is that I go to different locations based on what I feel like getting. If I want to grab a cup and run, I'll go to the nearest location complete with its long but swiftly moving line and not altogether friendly baristas. If I want to get coffee and linger, I'll walk the additional five to ten minutes to a location that I know is usually empty, order my drink, chat with the barista, and then settle down for a good hour of relaxation.
The good thing about Starbucks is that there are so many locations. You can pick and choose one that fits your needs and expectations. Yes, it does require some trial and error. However, it's worth it.


January 9, 2008 3:34 PM

The solution to the problem is simple... Starbucks should perfect the self-serve (deluxe, etc.) vending machine. It could make anything up to the complexity of a Vanilla Latte. Then if you were a high maintenance customer you could order at the counter and get your requisite eye contact/acknowledgement, etc. SBUX could incentivize use of the self-serve machines by charging a lower rate or coming up with an afinity program that rewarded that behavior. Virtual barista, anyone?


January 9, 2008 4:37 PM

My wife and I visited our local Starbucks over the holiday week. She wanted a "Christmas blend" coffee and was told by the head gear gal "We aren't brewing that blend." Duh, what blend would you brew during Christmas?!!


January 9, 2008 5:58 PM

Starbucks can improve customer service by changing their corporate structure to a franchise based system. Regional ownership would quickly repair the personal connection with the customer.


January 9, 2008 6:23 PM

I went into a Boston Market in New York and got treated like I was a fly spec on the wall, then went into one in St. Louis, and the employees were friendly and helpful - I think rather NYC is your problem.


January 9, 2008 8:23 PM

every starbucks is different. City stores are fast paced and getting people in and out as quick as you can.

Neighbourhood stores are slower paced, and have the time to make convesation and make you feel warm and cosy inside!

And i completely agree with what other people have commented on. Your article makes no sense.


January 10, 2008 4:51 AM

I absolutely agree with all the comments above. I live in Montreal and have stopped going to Starbucks ever since they've blocked the electricity outlets on the walls to prevent students from staying too long (they can only rely on their laptop battery life).

Bob Mitchell

January 10, 2008 7:07 PM

Starbucks is a prime example of the herd
mentality at work. The coffee is not just bad, its awful. The service is worse which brings me to price which is simply outrageous. People enjoy being
screwed over and the higher the price
the better they like it.

I suggest Schultz might better market his product by promoting it as parking lot or road repair material.


January 24, 2008 2:17 PM

It's always the same problem when brands grow and grow. In the end Starbucks is just another Mc Donalds. Companies should put much more attention to the 5th "P" - people.

Lucky Italiens - the don't need all this "third place" coffee culture design crab.


March 14, 2008 4:53 PM

Is this story correct - if so guess I won't be drinking Starbucks anymore!! !

Recently Marines in Iraq wrote to Starbucks because they wanted to let them know how much they liked their coffees and to request that they send some of it to the troops there. Starbucks replied, telling the Marines thank you for their support of their business, but that Starbucks does not support the war, nor anyone in it, and that they would not send the troops their brand of coffee.

So as not to offend Starbucks, maybe we should not support them by buying any of their products! I feel we should get this out in the open. I know this war might not be very popular with some folks, but that doesn't mean we don't support the boys on the ground fighting street-to-street and house-to-house.

If you feel the same as I do then pass this along, or you can discard it and no one will never know.

Thanks very much for your support. I know you'll all be there again when I deploy once more.


December 10, 2008 1:51 AM


I'm not sure where you got your information. But I'm a supervisor at Starbucks and have personally donated pounds of coffee to the troops myself, along with a tremendous amount of other stores.

So, you're welcome.


June 2, 2009 2:42 AM


Dean Kastel

June 5, 2009 8:54 PM

Everyone, including Starbucks, has got it wrong. Set aside the grab-and-go caffeiners, they need an access window only. And consider the original coffeehouses of Europe. Did we go there because the coffee was great...NO! Did we go there to have a great Starbuck experience...NO! Both of these are required AND incidental. We went there and want to go now for a much more important reason...TO CONNECT! with our own thoughts, with a friend, associate, or loved one, etc. And if it wasn't people, why do you think they had daily newspapers (free) from all parts of Europe. Starbucks still thinks its about them, when all they have to do is get off stage or at least off center.

They are now a large global outfit, present at most of the pulse points of the globe. How many public-gathering companies are this far-reaching? How many are well-positioned to move out of the "information age" into the "connect era"? Recently I proposed to Starbucks that they set aside a few of the larger stores globally (as a pilot venture), call them Ishmael's (stay with the mariner theme), use a well-designed lighthouse for a logo (matches well with connection, and gets rid of the beckoning, destructive siren), employs a wise, friendly host who reaches out to the community, AND installs a free, video conferencing facility for global connections. Can you imagine what it would be like to have this kind of connection experience as commonplace? All Starbucks need provide is the STIMULANT AND THE INCENTIVE TO CONNECT and quietly nourish the outcome.

Naysayers will have a field day with this idea. What do you think it would do for Starbuck's world image?

Jeoffry N.

April 10, 2011 9:41 PM

I often go to Starbucks for their Ice Blended Green Teas and in Malaysia, I have yet to find a hospitable outlet.

The employees do give you smiles and such but it will only be when they have nothing much to do.

When a line of people starts to form, you can literally see the frustration in the employee's face.

I don't blame them because I come from a Customer Service line of work but maybe Starbucks should try to teach their associates how to cope with an onslaught of thirsty guests?

Their products never fail to leave me wanting more though. ;)

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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