With Great New Stores, Starbucks Has A New Design Strategy: Act Local


Last November, Starbucks has opened a new store, as they already did over 1,700 times in 2013. Like the Starbucks you pass on your way to work, this new coffee shop has everything you need for your caffeine-consuming ritual : a coffee bar, a cozy lounge and enough coffee choices to keep you wired for days.

Only there is one small difference: this new Starbucks is on a moving train.

The coffee giant has teamed up with Swiss rail company SBB to convert a double-decker car into a store that people can visit on their daily commute. From a logistical point of view, this is a smart decision; instead of bringing in busy customers, they thought, why not just go to them? “It’s all about meeting our customers where they are today,” said Bill Sleeth, Starbuck’s vice president of design for the Americas.

You might read sentiment like another corporate game for global caffeine domination, but the intense store personalization is actually an ongoing effort to make the Starbucks brand a little less brand-y. “What you don’t want is for a customer to walk into a store in downtown Seattle, walk into a store in suburban Seattle, then into a store in San Jose and see the same store,” Sleeth explains. So how do you make the world’s largest cafe feel like a neighborhood hangout? The answer: good design.

The intense personalization is intended to make the Starbucks brand a little less marked.

There was a time when Starbucks was really the coffee shop next door, but that was a long time ago. The company opened its first store in Seattle in the spring of 1971 and remained relatively small (less than 100 stores) for the next 20 years. Of course, since then Starbucks has grown into the world’s largest coffeehouse chain. Today, there are over 18,000 stores around the world.

But let’s go back in time. In the mid-2000s, the chain was doing very well, opening one store a day, expanding into new territories such as Asia and South America. The design team had opened up new stores for a science – or at least a kit of parts that made it easy to launch a cafe with as little risk and time as possible. In 2007, the economy collapsed, as did some of Starbuck’s businesses. In 2008, the company closed approximately 600 stores, prompting a change in management and ultimately a change in design.

The company polled customers to find out what they thought of their not-so-small local cafe. As it turned out, for many people, Starbucks was becoming synonymous with fast food. “Customers were like, ‘Everywhere I go, you are there,’ and not in a good way,” Sleeth says. “We were pretty ubiquitous. Ubiquity is not a bad thing; it meant people wanted what they were selling.

But what’s good for the bottom line (mass production makes things cheaper) isn’t necessarily good for the brand. Starbucks executives wanted to move from the singular brand they were striving to establish globally to focus on more locally relevant design for each store. “There are a lot of reasons people come to us; we know people come to us because of the quality of the consistency, the speed, ”Sleeth explains. “But we have to do something that feels genuine.” But how?

As it turned out, Starbucks was becoming synonymous with fast food.

To design local, you have to be local

They started by getting people out of Seattle. In 2008, almost all of the company’s designers were based at the company’s headquarters in the Pacific Northwest. This meant that someone designing a new store for a neighborhood in Houston, Chicago, or New York City might never even have been to the city they were setting up a store for.

“We couldn’t design stores that were locally relevant, stores that would resonate with our Seattle customers,” Sleeth says. So they started moving their design team, pushing them from head office to the actual communities where they would design stores. Today, more than 200 Starbucks designers work in 18 design studios around the world, including 14 in America.


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