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post-Starbucks planning

Starbucks stores have seen a lot of protests. Due to its international brand recognition, the chain became an easy mark for activists looking to draw media attention to concerns from genetic engineering to union busting, from store placements in historically sensitive locations to the company’s opposition to Ethiopia’s application to trademark three types of coffee.

Jess Zimbabwe | @jzimbabwe | September 16, 2008, 7am PDT
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Starbucks stores have seen a lot of protests. Due to its international brand recognition, the chain became an easy mark for activists looking to draw media attention to concerns from genetic engineering to union busting, from store placements in historically sensitive locations to the company's opposition to Ethiopia's application to trademark three types of coffee. Citizens, activists, and planners engaged zoning overlays, preservation districts, and other tools of local planning in dozens if not hundreds of cities and towns where residents bemoaned the chain's role in the erosion of unique local character. Starbucks' seemingly never-ending expansion was the subject of ridiculeand satire. Starbucks seemed like a never-ending font of ire and a butt of perpetual jokes.

That's why I can't quite wrap my head around the grassroots (and quite sentimental) "save our starbucks" movement that has emerged in response to announced plans to close around 600 stores.

FromNewarkto Knoxville, customers, city planners, neighborhood activists, and mayors are asking the company to reconsider plans to close the locations. (Generally speaking, Starbucks is not slating its airport locations for closure. These stores, rather than being well-loved, are at least broadly considered a vast improvement over the airport bars with scalded coffee and perma-stale Danish that they replaced.)

It seems that Starbucks has come to represent progress for a neighborhood. Beyond initial concerns that the stores would simply draw a more gentrified clientele, the stores have become symbols for each neighborhood or city's appearance on the international map, as if the threat of closure will send area residents and patrons stumbling back into oblivion. The Starbucks stores move into a neighborhood as the check-cashing businesses, the liquor and adult video stores, and the fried-food-through-bullet-proof-glass stores move out. (Indeed, here's an advertisement for the sale of a check-cashing business that lists among its unique attributes that it is located in the same shopping center as a Starbucks.) Like the Guggenheim Museum was for Bilbao, Starbucks has symbolized the moment of "arrival" for towns in plains states, long-downtrodden neighborhoods in rust belt cities, and previously center-less suburbs of the Sunbelt states.

The reasons for the Starbucks closures are varied. In some markets, Starbucks faces stiff competition from locally or regionally owned competitors. In other parts of the country with low population, analysts have surmised that the chain "expanded before some markets were ready." In several markets, Starbucks faces heightened competition from other international chains like Dunkin' Donuts (who has designed a new store prototype with fancier finishes).

There has been a small, but growing realization for several years Starbucks may not be all bad for local businesses. Indeed, independently owned coffee shops have seen exceptionally good business in the past five years, nationwide. A lot of this is due to Starbucks' success at bringing an Italian-originated coffee bar culture to the U.S. (When Howard Schultz became President & CEO of Starbucks in 1987, he travelled to Italy and was enraptured by the jovial atmosphere of Italy's espresso bars. He exported the concept of coffee shop as social space, created a franchise-able interior decoration scheme that complemented the concept, and hired skilled real estate experts to lead the charge of spreading the stores across the land.) In 2007, Slate'sTaylor Clark spoke with a former Starbucks real estate specialist and concluded that despite the growth of independently-owned coffee shops, "Starbucks is actually trying to be ruthless in its store placements; it wants those independents out of the way, and it frequently succeeds at displacing them through other means, such as buying a mom and pop's lease or intimidating them into selling out."

Local planners and their booster allies shouldn't shed too many tears about a Starbucks closure or two (or even 13 as proposed in Las Vegas). The company, like so many others, found a good thing in rapid expansion plans and then failed to correctly identify when the trend had ended before they had over-extended and their competition had learned the lessons as well. Planners should rise above the "responding" level and examine behaviors in the areas that are losing Starbucks to identify the next trends. Maybe it's another coffee shop. Perhaps there is even room to learn from Architect Magazine's design competition for a "Starbucks of the Future." Study up on trends research like that on mobility hubscoming out of Center for Advancing Research and Solutions for Society at the University of Michigan. And if you still feel sentimental about losing the Starbucks, maybe you can meet up with this guy for part of his ambitious journey to visit every Starbucks in the world.

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