New Business

Steaming Over Via Instant Coffee at Starbucks


Starbucks (SBUX) instant coffee was always going to be a tough sell. That's why the company spent years developing it and months preparing its frontline employees (aka baristas) for the Sept. 29 launch of Via, three-packs of instant that go for $2.95. "We took a lot of time with it because we knew it could undermine the company if we didn't do it right," CEO Howard Schultz said this summer.

It's too early to say whether Via is a success. But judging from the coffee blogs, including the company's mystarbucksidea.com, for some baristas the pressure to sell Via is intense and unwelcome. "This is the most stressful promotion I have ever experienced, and I've been with the company for seven years," a barista wrote on starbucksgossip.com. Some customers are finding the hard sell a bit exasperating, too. As one wrote: "Please no more high-pressure Via sales pitches. It's annoying … it's completely out of line with Starbucks' vibe."

That Starbucks would even create an instant coffee is surprising enough. After all, the company celebrates the ritual preparation of coffee, and the sense of comfort, indulgence, and sometimes community that its customers experience. It is telling that, before introducing Via in three test markets, the company told employees an elaborate story about its creation: that it was a two-decade-long quest begun by a researcher named Don Valencia; that Valencia passed away before scientists at the company finally came up with a micro-grinding technique that allowed Starbucks to make an instant coffee that passed the exacting Schultz taste test; and that the name itself is in part homage to Valencia.

In the weeks before the official launch, Starbucks held pep rallies for employees in nearly 100 cities in the U.S. and Canada. Managers instructed baristas about how to strike up conversations about Via with their customers. And for the first time ever, Starbucks unveiled a national TV and print advertising campaign focused on a single product.

Starbucks sees great potential in Via: Instant coffee is a $21 billion global market. And Starbucks made a significant investment in Via, the biggest product rollout in its history. Naturally, executives set ambitious sales goals. There, perhaps, lie the roots of the problem. Starbucks baristas typically think of themselves as akin to bartenders, not salespeople. "We were just told to place a Via 12-pack in the customer's hand while asking if they would 'like to add some Via to their order,' " blogged one barista. "I have seen more annoyed customers than enthusiastic ones from all these strong-arm sales tactics. … Not to say it's not a good product. I think it just needs to be kept in the supermarkets next to the other Starbucks mass-market frill."

The company won't provide any specific information about Via's sales so far except to say that the product has been incredibly well-received. Clifford Burrows, president of Starbucks Coffee U.S., has seen the criticism of the sales tactics and says: "I've read it, but the general spirit is one of enthusiasm about Via. Some will find it easier to sell than others, some stores will be more successful than others."
Susan-berfield-photo-200x200
Berfield writes about retailers, restaurants, and other consumer companies for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow her on Twitter @susanberfield.

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