Last week Starbucks unveiled its new-look store on Conduit Street in London. Well, a look that’s not supposed to be a look. A look that reflects its newfound back-to-roots indie outlook. So how does it, erm, look?
In two words, ’sustainable’ and ’local’. A facelift was long overdue. A recent review of coffee shops, published by The Local Data Company, said Starbucks was "entering a period of introspection" as it took stock of its strategy. "The uniform ambience doesn’t seem so appealing these days and, now the bubble has been pricked, real questions are being asked about all premium coffee shops," it stated.
The chain has haemorrhaged stores, while rival Costa has continued its rapid growth. Now, Starbucks plans to open a number of stores next year, but the focus will be on refitting 100 outlets in 2010 at a cost of £25m, matching the 100 it refitted last year.
The aim is to reconnect the store to its heritage, with locally focused fittings and a less uniform approach. Tim Pfeiffer, senior vice-president, global design, flew into the UK last week to launch the plan, saying there are "several levels of environmental initiatives that we have pretty much embedded in the design going forwards".
"We wanted to embed the character of the neighourhood in this and really elevate the offering to the customer, with the overall vibe of the store, creating an environment that really is very much more bespoke and one-off. We wanted to elevate the overall value of what Starbucks represents," says Pfeiffer.
A sense of repurpose
It’s all about recycled materials and cosy meeting spaces in a library setting. For example, the flagship store features a large meeting table made from repurposed steel. "It is beautiful, but it also meets a real need," explains a spokesperson. "Customers want to hold meetings here whether it’s a book club, a mum’s group or business people using our free Wi-Fi to hold meetings everything is here for a reason."
There is also a return to the original ’heritage’ logo, introduced in 1971; there’s a lower-profile bar to improve interactivity with baristas; and they’ve even improved the coffee offer, with new Mastrena espresso machines. So has Starbucks done enough to stage a fightback?
"The look is fine but the global-local thing is too much of an oxymoron for it to be real," believes BB’s resident shop design expert, Richard Hamilton of Agile Space. While using windfall wood and salvaged materials are all well and good, will Starbucks be able to sustain this level of detail in all of its shop fits? "It’s a move on from the current store look, but the fortunes of Starbucks won’t be resolved by installing £800 Finnish bent plywood lampshades."
Sustaining this level of design detail will be difficult, he adds. "The cost implication will be much greater given its past cookie-cutter approach. The amount needing to be invested in sourcing, design and fit-out will also increase. It will be interesting to witness how and if this happens."
Of course, the one-off indie-style is nothing new. When Pret tried this approach three years ago, the hassle of operating stores with different finishes required everything from varied cleaning materials to light bulbs, causing problems with maintenance and upkeep. Meanwhile, the chain has brand perception problems to overcome. "Unfortunately, the Starbucks brand has become synonymous for me with dirty stores and a place for students to hang out for the day," says Hamilton.
A spokesperson for Starbucks responded, saying that it had worked on the cleanliness of stores and that customer satisfaction ratings were improving. She also said cost savings from green initiatives help pay the increased costs. "Yes, this approach is more expensive than adopting a one-size-fits-all policy. However, we are satisfied that the investment makes sound business sense. For example, higher green construction techniques will be repaid through lower energy and water bills." The challenge will be not to accidentally slip back into identikit shopfit mode, especially as "all the refits will be inspired by the look, feel and principles of the new design approach".