Over on my husband’s blog he put up a post the other day which summarises the sort of knots we as a couple tie ourselves into when we are trying to be ethical consumers.  I know loads of people who love Starbucks and have no qualms about going there (and the global success of their brand does kind of hint that it’s not just my friends and acquaintances who are giving them trade…).  But Naomi Klein’s “No Logo” has left a long-lingering cloud over Starbucks for us.  Why do we have an issue with it?  Well in “No Logo” Klein outlines their business model, describing a ‘cluster strategy’:

Starbucks’ policy is to drop “clusters” of outlets in areas already dotted with cafes and espresso bars.  This strategy relies just as heavily on economy of scale as Wal-Mart’s does and the effect on competitors is much the same….instead of opening a new store in every city in the world, or even in North America, Starbucks waits until it can blitz an entire area and spread…”like headlice through a kindergarten”.  It’s a highly aggressive strategy, and it involves something the company calls “cannibalization”.

The idea is to saturate an area with stores until the coffee competition is so fierce that sales drop even in individual Starbucks outlets…Understandably the closer the the outlets get to each other, the more they begin to poach  or “cannibalize” each others clientele…What this means is that while sales were slowing at individual stores, the total sales of all the chain’s stores [were] doubling, in fact between 1995 and 1997. 

It also helped Starbucks, no doubt, that its cannibalization strategy preys not only on other Starbucks outlets but equally on its real competitors, independently run coffee shops and restaurants.  And, unlike Starbucks, these lone businesses can only profit from one store at a time.  The bottom line is that clustering…is a competitive retail strategy that is only an option for a large chain.

Now, the list of accusations (well- evidenced in the book, if you’re interested) goes on, and of course Starbucks is far from being a lone offender.  But this particular description of how Starbucks operated hit home to us at the time we read it because we actually saw it happening in Edinburgh’s relatively small city centre, and we also saw or heard of a number of city-centre independent coffee shops and local chains fold as a result of this Starbucks-rule-the-world approach.

It has also bothered me for a long time that Starbucks have bigged-up their fair trade credentials when for ages the only fairtrade product you could get was a filter coffee (I went in and checked and got really wishy-washy answers from the staff.  Other friends did the same and we all got the same feeble responses.  There was a campaign for a while to try and pressure them into getting into fair trade through consumer demand, which basically just meant going in and asking for a fair trade cappucino or whatever).  And now Starbucks are the world’s biggest buyer of Fairtrade coffee in the world.  It just doesn’t sound right somehow…But then they are, like Hoover, becoming the default brand name used to describe getting a coffee: “Just going out for a Starbucks”.  If you’re that big then sheer scale will dictate you’ll be the biggest buyer, or seller, or something or other.  Maybe I should be a bit more gracious and concede that it’s great that Starbucks are buying and therefore leading the march for so much fair trade coffee.  Surely that can only be a good thing for growers?  (answers on a postcard – or via the comments section of this post – please!)

But it still bothers me that they are becoming more and more ‘present’ (although they shut down loads of outlets in the UK last year apparently, not that I noticed around here).  In Sainsburys at the weekend we were buying some of the groceries we needed for my parents coming to stay, and ended up in the tea and coffee aisle.  So many products are fair trade now, it’s really good.  But there they were, two boxes of Starbucks fair trade coffee on the shelf.  We just couldn’t resist doing a bit of reorganisation as we walked by…surely they don’t need us to take their coffee home too?

 

Now you see it...

Now you see it...

...Now you don't

...Now you don't

I know, it was a bit cheeky and a bit reactionary, but there are some brands that just bug me by their sheer pervasiveness.  It gave us a bit of satisfaction, and we only moved two packets.  It did make me reflect later that that’s perhaps why we find some of the brands that we like in such weird places.  Perhaps there are whole armies of surreptitious shoppers who go around rearranging shelves to reflect their own preferences and values.
It did also occur to me later that by replacing Starbucks with Sainsburys we were just replacing a big (global) brand with a big (national) brand.  I kind of wished we’d put some Edinburgh Tea and Coffee Company coffee in the slot on the shelf instead, but they don’t do fair trade…
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