Viva la Barista!

Starbucks is in trouble, and for the first time it’s not because of WTO rioters or a Brazilian frost.

Recently, Starbucks announces a corporate restructuring to try and reverse a negative slide in profit. The reasons for this are varied and unimaginative, and alas are unlikely to involve such exciting scancals as executives being taped using racial slurs, Enron-style financial shenanigans, or Hepatitis A.

I’ve always been kind of ambivalent towards coffee shops. On the minus side, they sell overpriced, overburnt drinks that are one part legitimate coffee and nine parts dessert. Their clientele is a mix of pretentious college students dividing their time pretending to study and trying to get into the pants of each other, or, alternately, businessmen and women who decide to take a half-hour meeting and stretch it into a three-hour coffee-drinking social gathering where they hash out their executive plans and try to get into the pants of each other. They have ridiculous music which is marketed as “world” and “independent” music, as if they were produced in a Kenyan jungle by rogue pirate sound engineers instead of in Los Angeles in conjunction with an advertising deal with Clear Channel Communications and RCA. They make a pretty big deal about how they purchase fair trade coffee, as if a majority of the profits weren’t still going to the United Fruit Company and the descendents of Chase & Sanborn, and offer health insurance to their workers, for those teenagers who might get carpal tunnel syndrome while burning the lattes.

On the plus side, their stuff is pretty good, even though I feel like doing penance afterwards. And sometimes the baristas are pretty hot. As in attractive hot, not standing in front of an espresso machine all day long on a sticky summer afternoon hot.

Starbucks’s current financial woes stem from several different issues. One of them is competition. No one is going to ever accuse Starbucks from undercutting the competition; their product line has always been pretty expensive, and mom and pop stores usually carve out a fairly large market share by being slightly cheaper but still maintaining a sinful markup that would make the cigarette and textile companies blush with shame and green with envy.

But part of it may be Starbucks’s corporate image. Coffee shops tend to attract exactly the sort of young, progressive, idealistic customer that likes to bring marble mocha macchiatos to the protest rally. And yet one can’t quite shake the fact that Starbucks is a huge corporation, with bottom lines, suit-wearing executives, and quarterly earnings statements just like every other corporation. Unlike local shops, there is little identity in a Starbucks; going into one Starbucks is just like going into any Starbucks, with pretty much the same appearance, products, and color schemes. It’s eerily close to that episode of Star Trek when DeForest Kelley wakes up every morning with a groundhog and some Asian dude in a rabbit suit riding a phone booth, then he accidentally steps on his glasses as the bank vault locks shut.

Another issue is the saturation of store locations. Starbucks is notorious for cramming storefronts in every possibly corner, side shop, big box chain bookstore, and cardboard box under the bridge possible. Several malls have two or more locations, and those unaware of this fact sometimes feel disoriented, as if the streets they walk down have been looped like the background of some ‘60’s-era Hanna Barbera cartoon.

As such, Starbucks is changing their market strategy. They are going to close around 600 stores throughout the United States, and drastically roll back expansion plans, a curious decision since as far as I can tell the only places that aren’t already saturated with Starbucks stores are North Korea, Cuba, and Antarctica, and I’m not so sure about North Korea. I hear Kim Jong Il loves their Strawberry Frappachinos. So apparently their plans for a new store at the Olathe, Kansas Great Plains Mall has been scrapped for now.

So what can the company do to turn their business around? Well, here is my comprehensive plan to save Starbucks.

For one thing, they should stop pushing ridiculously obscure flavors as specials. I understand the desire to have people try new things, but as with all irritable middle-aged people like me, trying new things is an evil plot to completely destroy our lives for the balance of our existence, making us charred husks of our former selves. So when I walk into a Starbucks I want a mocha latte to be on sale, not a pomegranate iced tea with an asparagus flavor shot.

Secondly, I think Starbucks should give in and start encouraging all the silly things college kids today like to do. Mostly, I’m talking about trivia about arcane knowledge with the reward of ten cents off of a four dollar coffee. If possible, these trivia questions should be somehow relevant to any current classes being taken by the students, if for no other reason than to foster a false sense of exactly how productive their Master’s degree in Comparative Art History will be in the real world, and the crushing realization that $60,000 in debt will be paid off a dime at a time. That’s a lot of cups of coffee to sell.

Third, and most important—it’s small, medium, and large. Get over it.

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