Tuesday, October 22, 2002

It is clear from reading the press and from talking to people in coffee shops that Starbucks are in the process of preparing for an assault on Europe resembling that of 1944. Britain has been deluged with Starbucks stores for several years now. Starbucks have set up the infrastructure for a continental assault, and they are just beginning their push into a few markets. Their strategy (which I saw in Australia a couple of years ago) tends to be to carpet bomb cities, to continue the analogy. They might set one shop up for a few months before all the rest, just to feel out the idiosyncracies of a new market. Then they will go from one store to 20 stores in a city in what feels like a few months. They seem to have gone to the "just feel out a market" stage in a few European cities (Vienna, Berlin, Zurich, Barcelona, Madrid). Watch for the number of stores to increase dramatically in the next twelve months.

One interesting precursor is the "Starbucks clone" phenomenon. In cities of the world where Starbucks have not yet entered the market, somebody else will set up coffee shops that copy Starbuck's business model as closely as possible. I have written about this before: "The Seattle Coffee Company" in the UK set up Starbucks like coffee shops, and the easiest way for Starbucks to enter the market was for them to simply acquire the chain along with its suppliers and logistics. I have seen these in a few other places: I saw one or two Starbucks clones in Amsterdam earlier this year, but these were independents rather than chains.

However, in Hamburg last week I have seen the most extreme chain of Starbucks clones I have ever seen. These were called "Balzac Coffee". (The classy thing to do would be to name the chain after a character in Typee, but they didn't appear to have managed that. They had a circular logo of the same size as Starbuks, hanging in the window in the same way. (Although it was brown instead of green and wasn't nautical. They had the same mix of bagels, pastries and cakes in the identical sort of counter cabinet that Starbucks uses. They had the same mixture of comfortable sofas and chairs and slightly more serious upright chairs and tables. The tables had the same, not quite chessboard look you see in Starbucks. They had the same sorts of large, glass mounted "exotic coffee" pictures on the walls. The staff wore uniforms that were almost identical to those worn by Starbucks staff (although again brown instead of green). The choice of coffees was very similar to Starbucks: the hot and cold drinks, the brewed "coffee of the day". The boutique coffee machines and boutique coffee for sale. Large pictures of coffee growing in exotic locations on the walls. Everything. Somebody had gone to immense trouble to clone the operation exactly. So exactly that in some countries it would be asking for a lawsuit due to trademark violations.

What of course was interesting was that to turn this into a Starbucks, all you actually need to do is to change the fonts on the menu board, add a few trade marked words such as "Venti" and "Frappuccino". change the logo to something nautical, issue green aprons to the staff and bingo: Starbucks. There seems little point in cloning the operation merely to create a successful business. Starbucks have a good business model, but there is no need to be this obsessive about it. It looks more like an attempt to set up a business to be acquired by Starbucks, and the reason the model has been copied so exactly is to minimise the cost of converting the stores. It will be interesting to see if Starbucks will take (or have taken) the bait.

The positive of all this is that Balzac Coffee do in fact make good coffee. Decent coffee is hard to otherwise obtain in Germany. Starbucks will make a killing in this market (as they have in Britain and Japan). I would guess that in the longer term they will also make a killing in places like Poland and Russia. Whether they will in markets such as Italy and France, where the coffee is much better, remains to be seen. That said, Starbucks' entry to the Australian market seems quite successful, and there was no trouble buying a good cup of coffee in Australia prior to their entry to the market. Australia received a lot of Italian immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s, and as a consequence good coffee became all-pervasive. In Sydney and Melbourne you can even obtain an excellent latte in a Chinese restaurant.

No comments:

Blog Archive