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April 12, 2005

Starbucks Need for Speed

Reveries has a nice sum-up of the Wall Street Journal article on Starbucks need for speed.

For years now Starbucks has been fixated on reducing customer wait time (i.e. speed of service). However, at some point a fixation can become an obsession and not all obsessions are healthy.

From the WSJ article, “This is a game about seconds,” says Silvia Peterson, Starbucks director of store operations engineering, adding that she and her team of 10 engineers are constantly asking themselves: “How can we shave time off this?”

It occurs to me Starbucks used to be obsessive about quality. Now they seem to be obsessive about quantity.

My Starbucks Tribal Knowledge tells me this …

“People will wait for a burger – it’s lunch.”
-- Howard Behar, long-time influential SBUX executive --

And people will wait for coffee. It’s just coffee after all.


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Sure... in a neighborhood store, when you're taking a break from errands, a low pace may be a nice pause.

But when you have-to-have your triple-shot latte to wake you up before your 8 am meeting - each 10, 15, 30 seconds per customer in a downtown, busy store equates to minutes.

Starbucks is fast-food to customers... not even food... just drinks. An average Starbucks customer's patience for waiting is low...

Finally, Starbucks obsession with speed doesn't mean they've scrapped quality.

The challenge/beauty with Starbucks is that they're obsessive about everything.

You remember the Jim Collins "Built to Last" line...

"Embrace the genius of the AND. Avoid the tyranny of the OR."

Service AND Quality AND Environment AND Speed AND Local, not OR.

Over at the View from 5280 blog, Paul Swansen made a very keen observation: “It's not speed I want but efficency.”

I think Paul Swansen is onto something. I hadn't thought about the differences 'tween efficiency and speed. For a coffee shop, speed kills but efficiency excels. It just seems
like being more efficient pays attention to the emotional experience while speed is all about the rational need to be quicker.

Yo Brand Examiner Paul, I’m not saying SBUX should take their time in making a triple tall dry cappuccino. Let me clarify what I’m thinking …

I find it wacky Starbucks has a ‘director of store operations engineering’ and not a ‘director of store customer experiences.’ You know we’ve talked a lot about Starbucks needing to improve the experience of customers waiting in line. If a customer receives attentive service while waiting in line, then I think they will be more gracious in the time it takes to prepare their beverage to order. With that said, I’d rather see Starbucks solve for improving the waiting experience more so than trying to shave off a tenth-of-second in preparing a beverage.

I think if you really must have a "triple tall dry cappuccino" then the wait isn't really that important. If all you want is a cup of coffee - black - then waiting can be a problem.

I can get a decent cup of black coffee at a number of places. Almost all of them cost less, and serve me faster.

I can get truly mediocre coffee for free at the office. Some days that's good enough.

Why else would you pay $4 for a cup of coffee if you did not want quality. if you want fast, go to 7-Eleven and pour it yourself.

My advice for anyone in the hurry in the morning would be to wake up ten minutes earlier and hit the starbucks before rush hour. My Starbucks coffee at 6:30 AM taste just as good, and I do not have to wait in a line. The question is, are you more irritated that Starbucks is taking their time on your order, or that your upset because you are late for work because you had to get your coffee fix?

EVERYONE at Starbucks is responsible for the experience.

The SINGLE person responsible is Howard Schultz.

The gal, Sylvia, interviewed in that piece is responsible for one percentage of the solution. She's in charge of the equipment and ergonomics connected with the preparation of Starbucks core business - beverages. That's her focus. To find better, more efficient ways for barista's to handcraft a high-quality beverage. Like any profession, better tools often equate to better products, and more efficiency.

But there is also someone in charge of new espresso beverages. They have to also make sure that they don't suggest a new recipe that is too complex and takes too long to make.

There is someone in operations who makes sure that the barista knows the key descriptors of that new beverage, so they may explain it to the customer properly.

There is someone responsible for the Starbucks Card who makes sure the store partner knows about the new Ichiro card and how a donation is made to charity when it's used.

On and on...

If only a few of these people were considerate of time, it'd be very inefficient. (We've all been to restaurants and retailers who don't have their act together).

But if everyone in their role puts the customer experience first (Sylvia's role is efficient equipment) - the overall customer experience will be high quality, high speed and positive.

Starbucks sometimes does seem very slow these days, (although I often wonder if it just appears that way, due to the rushed, fidgety, pushy nature of the suited suburbanites waiting to get their morning shot of powerfuel). So, Starbucks pays a high-dollar executive and a team of 20 engineers to do endless ergonomics studies to solve this problem? Hmmm. These people must not actually visit the stores, because it appears to me that what makes Starbucks slow is the fact that they are constantly having to train new low-wage employees, and few of them ever develop real speed or comfort level with the job. Ergonomics engineers are probably not going to solve this problem, (but will rather exhaustively change smaller details which underlie the bigger causes). Innovative ways to attract and retain employees might do it, though. Speed-based compensation bonuses could be something to look at, (not that the ergo folks will see it that way).

A counter-thought: The "order here" and "pick up here" concept seems naturally slow, even though everyone else has also adopted it. You have two bottlenecks, one when you order and one when you pick up. I think this adds to the perception of slowness in a big way. So, I ask, what's wrong with old Italian way: Long, high marble bar-style countertop, multiple machines, multiple positions to order and pick up from along the length of it. Pretty much anywhere in Europe you can get an espresso in 30 seconds and a capuccino in a minute and a half, be paid up and walking out the door. That's without ergonomics engineers. The difference may be that the shop owner or his daughter is serving you, and has a monetary incentive to move faster.

Personally, I try to avoid Starbucks these days but it has nothing to do with speed, at all. My two usual coffee spots both have much better tasting coffees, more relaxed and interesting atmosphere, the rich smell of roasting beans in the air. Both are probably slower than Starbucks if I was to actually put a stopwatch on them. For me, good coffee is not like fast food. It's a daily luxury I cherish, and I want the whole pleasurable coffee experience to start my day with. Speed is only semi-important, and not the main criteria. Speed is 7-11's job. Starbucks may be shaking the wrong bush here.

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