Testing the Limit of Starbucks Warmth in the Philippines

A couple of things immediately stand out when referring to Starbucks. For one, the company is understandably proud of its baristas. This Seattle-born company is passionate about coffee but if we consider that Filipinos have not always consumed coffee at the Starbuck’s price range, it’s easy to see that service and ambiance are important factors why patrons flock to Starbucks.

Starbucks baristas are famed for their warmth and impeccable people skills (I can never be a barista because I’m grumpy). Starbucks stores are clean and crisp, well-lighted and well-ventilated, with the pieces of furniture reflecting a sense of simple elegance and comfort. These factors are designed to make a Starbucks store a preferred destination, a favorite hangout if you will; a coffee shop with a warm, homey atmosphere that draws in the crowd.

Part of this warm service culture, as far as the Philippines is concerned, is shifting away from the usual practice of asking patrons not to hog the seats in the store. Tambay is the word. If patrons only take up enough time and space to consume their food or coffee, other patrons can use the same space in a later time. More patrons served, more business income. The Starbucks service principle, however, is to allow patrons to stay as long as they want.

The message is clearly understood — feel free to stay for as long as you want. This homey atmosphere has created a very amusing scenario — students and reviewees, on ever increasing frequency and crowd size, are using Starbucks stores as regular review/study venues.

While not all Starbucks clients are created equal, all coffee lovers equally love coffee. While many coffee lovers are constantly on the go, probably the reason for the increasing number of drive-through Starbucks outlets, many coffee lovers would also like to sit still from time to time. They want to sit back and talk with friends for a couple of minutes. They buy coffee, sit for a while, leave, then repeat the buying cycle. Good business for Starbucks.

The explosion of reviewees in Starbucks, however, makes it terribly difficult for many to find seats; never mind the most comfortable sofa, the worst seat would be very much appreciated. Imagine driving through all the traffic mess in Metro Manila, seeing a Starbucks and thinking to drop by, get a cup of coffee and take a few minutes off from the road, only to find out that relaxation is impossible because a table for four is occupied by a SINGLE person with all those books, bags and gadgets all over the place. If patrons want to see a library or study hall, they’ll go to a library. If they want coffee, they’d go to a coffee shop. They don’t want to go to a coffee shop and discover a library.

This scenario, this frustration, has led many to do the unthinkable: deliberately switch loyalty to some other brands as a sign of protest. Where only Starbucks exist, as it remains the leading high-end coffee chain in the Philippines, you go to Starbucks. In places where other coffee shops (for instance, Seattle’s Best and the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf) coexist with Starbucks, you deliberately choose the other coffee shop. The funny thing is, you’ll soon grow accustomed to the coffee and pastries in Seattle’s Best or CBTL (interesting to note that McDonald’s coffee ranks high on my fastfood coffee list).

Of course, it’s absurd to even suggest that Starbucks has not observed the increasing number of reviewees in many of their outlets. Maybe their studies have shown that the influx of reviewees is seasonal (doubt it). Maybe it has actually increased the business for one reason or another (it’s most likely that these reviewees, once they make it, will forever be loyal to Starbucks). Maybe it’s too early to care because the other coffee companies are too far behind in terms of market share. Indeed, there are a lot of things we don’t know. What we know, however, is that many coffee lovers now prefer the taste of Seattle’s Best and CBTL (and, yes, McDonald’s) over Starbucks.

Starbucks outlets in other countries have different ways of dealing with this challenge. In Singapore, for instance, signs have sprouted asking patrons to “please refrain from studying during our [Starbucks’] peak hours.” We have not seen a similar sign in any of the Starbucks outlets we’ve visited. The Philippines, after all, is naturally more hospitable and warm than Singapore. Starbucks-Philippines will definitely try out other strategies or hold off until it has no choice before putting up a similar sign. The coffee company has to walk a tightrope. It has to avoid a potential backlash to any perceived betrayal of its original message, which is “stay for as long as you want”. Let’s see how creative Starbucks gets.

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