Starbucks finally opened its first outlet in Mumbai last fortnight and the place has been packed ever since. The Baristas, Cafe Coffee Days and Costas suddenly seem orphaned. That may change once the novelty value wears off, but it shows just how powerful the Starbucks mystique has become. What is it about Starbucks that gives it such a special aura? Other big-name coffee outlets look the same, their coffee tastes pretty similar, the range of beverages and merchandise is pretty well matched and the service in some is more intimate. Yet, walk through any high street anywhere in the world, and the one which has the biggest crowds and the longest queues will be the 40-year-old Seattle-based chain. That’s precisely what is happening in Mumbai right now.
Universally, it is a brand that comes with a unique cachet, an undefinable allure that only very few global names carry. The Indian outlet has some clues as to what makes Starbucks different—friendly workers take orders from customers in the queue and relay it via headsets to the baristas behind the counter, but even so, the unceasing crowds, despite the higher prices, means that stopping for a latte will involve a major investment of time. That doesn’t seem to bother customers, though. No wonder it’s the largest coffeehouse company in the world, with 19,972 stores in 61 countries, including 12,937 in the United States alone.
Here’s what makes it so different. In Mumbai and elsewhere, they are competing with other established coffee chains—even McDonald’s sells a pretty decent cup of coffee—but in America, their biggest market, their outlets compete against each other. I walked down a street in downtown New York last year and counted four Starbucks on one block alone (one advertised itself as ‘the busiest Starbucks in New York’!). What they sell apart from a range of coffees, other beverages and eatables, is an experience, warm, fuzzy, friendly, and geared to the generation which refuses to go anywhere where there is no wi-fi access for their tablets, smartphones or laptops. All Starbucks offer wi-fi, most are free, while some sell a loyalty card that grants wireless access at a discounted rate. Among coffee lovers, it’s a badge of honour.
The interior design of their stores are geared to that end. There are always people sitting at the tall wooden chairs by the windows pecking away on their laptops long after their Frappuccino has finished.