Starbucks now asks for your name when you buy coffee – but what do UK coffee lovers really want?

Sophie Harrison on how Starbucks might be attempting to mimic the vibe of the small independent coffee shop - but is US-style 'customer service' the answer? Will independent coffee shops make a come back in the UK?

Starbucks

Starbucks have recently launched their “nice to meet you” campaign. The one minute video on their website promises to refer to their customers not by their drink order, “but instead as your folks intended – by your name”, encouraging us all to “say hello and introduce yourself”.

Personally the one thing I think that my “folks intended” was to teach me not to go handing out my personal information to strangers. While I admit the older I get, the more slack I am with the “never talk to strangers” rule, there is still something about telling the barista my name that I’m a little bit uncomfortable with. I have never been given the wrong drink in Starbucks and I’ve never felt offended by the assistant calling out “caffe latte” instead of my name so do we really need to start introducing ourselves in order to get a drink?

If there was one thing I learnt from having a part time retail job, it was that British customers are not huge fans of the pushy sales techniques and over friendly customer service shipped in from across the Atlantic. So just why are we edging towards the American way of doing things?  After all, coffee shops have actually been in Britain since the mid 17th century. They were then independently owned shops that were considered a good place to meet, socialise and drink coffee – a concept that remains today – what has changed however is the massive presence of the large chain coffee shops on the high-street.

Independent Coffee Shop

Are independent coffee shops making a come back in the UK?

Take Starbucks for example. Since its creation in 1971, Starbucks has opened more than 15,000 stores in over 50 countries. But how can a history of more than 300 years in Britain be so overshadowed by a company which only opened its first branch here in 1998?

My hometown of Cambridge, a relatively small city, has no less than six branches of Costa Coffee, five Starbucks, three Caffe Neros and a couple of Pret a Mangers. They are all usually incredibly busy and, unlike the small independent shops which are tucked away, they spill out onto the street. Whether it is a queue coming out of the door, a member of staff handing out tasters, or the sign outside of the Christ’s Lane branch of Starbucks which says “Turn back! You’ve missed us!” one way or another they are all very good at making themselves seen.

Starbucks

“Personally the one thing I think that my “folks intended” was to teach me not to go handing out my personal information to strangers.”

But just why are the big chains so successful?

Coffee shops do something that few other places on the high-street manage. They provide a service (or as they’d like us to call it, an “experience”) that crosses all usual social divides. If you enter a branch of Starbucks you’ll see people from all walks of life; students, retired couples, mothers with babies, men in suits and unlike a restaurant, it is never awkward to walk in alone, nor is it an inconvenience to turn up in a large group.

I’d go so far to say that Starbucks has become somewhat of an urban phenomenon, especially amongst teenagers. Perhaps this has its roots in the fact that Starbucks, particularly in the US, is a favourite spot for the paparazzi to lurk. While we may not be able to afford the shoes that a celebrity is wearing, we can, at least, experience a venti-sized portion of stardom.

There is then the ever- growing trend of stealing Starbucks’ mugs. I remember watching every Spanish student from our school exchange walk out with theirs as if it was part of what they had paid for. There are even forums full of debate as to the best ways to go about nabbing yourself one.

Finally modern technology is playing a huge part in helping to develop the “Starbucks lifestyle”. The iPhone app Instagram in the last year has really help boost Starbucks’ visual presence on the web. The free download allows users to take photos with digital filters to create retro Polaroid-esqe images which are then easily shared with the use of hashtags (eg #starbucks) across social networking sites. Taking photos of your coffee has become strangely popular and is something Starbucks seem keen to promote through their own account on Instagram.

When Starbucks opened their first branch back in 1998, the BBC released an article stating that “observers believe that the expansion of luxury coffee market will be difficult to sustain if the UK economy goes into recession” which appeared to be a valid argument, but interestingly one that has been completely disproven. Even during a time when many people are searching for ways to reduce their spending, the seemingly extravagant purchase of a £2 coffee is something that isn’t being given up. In exactly the same way that sales of make-up have been seen to rise during the recession (Mintel reported a 16% increase for 2010) it seems that cheap pick-me-up treats are still very much on the menu.

Starbucks Coffice

“…many branches of Starbucks or Costa, they are increasingly being used as a cheap alternative for individuals to work or for small groups to hold informal meetings”

In fact coffee shops are arguably helping people through the recession. To hire a meeting room in London can cost anything upwards of £50 per hour but with wi-fi and power points provided free of charge in many branches of Starbucks or Costa, they are increasingly being used as a cheap alternative for individuals to work or for small groups to hold informal meetings. Social networking is also helping this trend with websites such as The Coffice bringing together individuals who use coffee shops as their main place to work.

PostDesk was able to get in touch with Laurence Winch, the UK and Ireland Coffee Ambassador for Starbucks to ask him a few questions about the new “nice to meet you” campaign and Starbucks’ plans for business in Britain. Laurence told us,

“Part of our new way forward is that we want to get to know our customers and at the same time they can get to know us… everything these days is a little impersonal and we want to address that. We have always talked about our stores being the “Third Place” – where customers want to be if they are not at work or at home – and the personalisation piece supports that goal”

So what feedback has Starbucks had so far? Are British customers embracing the Americanised way of doing things?

“The majority of our customers have welcomed the option and indeed, enjoy it when our baristas can welcome them into store by name. There are some customers who prefer not to have their names taken and this is fine too… There are many customers who I have served almost every day who I talk to, and to be able to have that conversation on a first name basis is great.”

We also asked Laurence about the Starbucks “culture”- people working from coffee shops, teenagers increasingly using them as a place to hang– what does he make of this and why does he believe Starbucks is so popular?

“More and more people like to work from a store and that’s why in some of our more recent refurbishments we have put in more power points and community tables where customers can enjoy the third place atmosphere and work at the same time. As far as I’m concerned, so long as the customer purchases a drink or two, I am more than happy to let them stay in store and work.”

Miley Cyrus Starbucks

“The younger generation have a real affinity for the Starbucks brand…the introduction of the Frappuccino provided the younger customers with a drink that related to them”

“The younger generation have a real affinity for the Starbucks brand…the introduction of the Frappuccino provided the younger customers with a drink that related to them. Also the way Starbucks has embraced social media and uses that to have a two way dialogue with our customers again, really speaks to the more IT savvy millennial consumers.”

And finally we asked “What are Starbucks plans for the future?”

“The UK is looking to expand our number of stores, in particular Drive-thru and starbucks hopes to create 5000 jobs over the next few years”

So it seems we are nation of coffee shop lovers and recession-proof Starbucks is firmly here to stay in Britain. But are the coffee shops going too far in their bid to become your new best friend?