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Starbucks Extends Caffeine Fix to U.K. Drivers

December 22, 2011

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Americans pride themselves on exporting their best-loved products and services. Now that Starbucks has established its presence on multitudinous street-corners, its next offering is that old American favorite, the drive-thru.

Starbucks said it plans to open 200 new drive-thru stores in the U.K. over the next five years to "bring new levels of comfort and environmental performance to the roadside."

Starbucks' existing nine drive-thru units in the UK have encouraged the company's UK and Ireland managing director, Kris Engskov, to claim them as proof that there is further opportunity. The Daily Telegraph points out that many commuters drive to work without passing a shop and parents enjoy the ability to buy a coffee without having to park their car and take out the children from their car seats. Mr. Engskov asserted, "This is absolutely about customers asking for this. The drive-thru meets a customer need."

The Financial Times adds that Starbucks has 2,500 drive-throughs in the U.S. and believes British customers are seeking more roadside cafes. In the U.S., that equates to about slightly more than a quarter of its store base.

Drive-through windows have been a somewhat controversial addition for Starbucks. The first one opened in the U.S. in 1994 in Southern California, partly to cater to parents with young children in the car. By 2006, when Starbucks had 1,000 drive-throughs, a comprehensive article in the Wall Street Journal pondered whether the coffee chain's upscale image — described as "painstakingly cultivated with strong coffee, soft chairs and hipster music" — would be hurt by the planned expansion of drive-thrus.

The drive-thrus were said to be necessary to reach customers in the suburbs bound to their cars and it would also help support its new breakfast sandwich business. While the article quoted one car-tethered suburbanite as saying he couldn't stop at a Starbucks without one, another said a drive-thru window "takes away from them being coffee-shoppy."

Starbucks has also taken several steps over the years to increase service speed time at its drive-thru windows and reduce car bottlenecks.


Discussion Questions:

Discussion question: Have drive-thrus helped or hurt the customer experience positioning that Starbucks has cultivated over the years? Are drive-thrus necessary for Starbucks to service the suburbs and rural areas?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

In hindsight, has rolling out drive-thrus been a positive or negative addition to Starbucks' locations?


There are times when you want to go to Starbucks, talk to someone, perhaps sit down and read a book -- on a tablet of course ;-). There are other times you are late for a meeting and you just need a coffee. Are drive-thrus the best brand extension for Starbucks? No. Do they increase sales? Yes. And while drive-thrus don't help the Starbucks brand, I doubt they hurt it either.

Fabien Tiburce, CEO, Compliantia, Retail Audit & Task Management Software

The drive-thrus are a mixed bag. You know it's not as fast as a Dunkin' Donuts drive thru (for example), but it's not terribly slow and it is very convenient.

You know going in it's not quite the same customer experience, but you know you're going to get the same quality. Just like when you buy bottled Starbucks in a supermarket or C-store, there's not a lot of experience there, just a good product.

It's not a bad thing.

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Paula Rosenblum, Managing Partner, RSR Research

Americans are crazy about drive through service and should they be foregoing some utilitarian benefits (the Starbucks experience) from within the store itself, they are perfectly willing to do so for the convenience of their "fix" and it affects their brand image not a whoot.

Charles P. Walsh, President, OmniQuest Resources, Inc

Perhaps I am the Lone Ranger in CoffeeDom, but I'm still not addicted to a daily admiration to Starbucks. The brand is iconic, has mystical values in the market place, but it does takes a longer time to render a specific Starbucks than pouring regular coffee. That doesn't seem completely compatible with the fast and long established drive-thru paradigm.

Gene Hoffman, President/CEO, Corporate Strategies International

Starbucks is smart to reach customers in the way that customers want to be reached. If a given customer wants to graze the "third location" instead of nesting there, that's their business. And no matter what the delivery format, the Starbucks cup still signifies affluence and a sense of belonging with the brand.

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Cathy Hotka, Principal, Cathy Hotka & Associates

The drive-thru can either hurt or help the customer experience. Chick-fil-A is a great example of how it can help, with a focus on speed, accuracy, and courtesy unparalleled in quick service restaurants. Based on my limited experience, it seems that Starbucks has done a good job of implementing processes and enabling the Starbucks culture to be leveraged in their drive-thru, creating a positive customer experience. In terms of suburban and rural coverage, drive-thrus will be required to address time-starved customers.

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Verlin Youd, Managing Principal, Verizon

Simple question...what is the incidence of cars with cupholders? In the mid-90s, it was pretty low in Europe but it might be a lot higher now. Could there be a better indicator (and prerequisite) regarding demand for Starbucks drive through?

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Joel Rubinson, President, Rubinson Partners, Inc.

The challenge for Starbucks in managing a branded drive-thru experience will be the same as for any business offering drive-thru -- They must conceive of the experience as beginning at curb cut, and mapped along the entire service route end-to-end. Out of box innovation to enhance and brand the drive thru experience can go a long way to "Starbucksizing" the experiences of their drive-thru customer.

David Forbes, CEO, The Forbes Consulting Group

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