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Starbucks expects China to surpass US as its largest market

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Starbucks plans to open 500 stores a year for the next five years in China — more than doubling the current store count by the year 2021. (AP)

Starbucks said it expects China to eventually overtake the U.S. as the coffee chain's largest market.

The Seattle company said it is on track to open 500 stores in China this year. It expects to have a total of 3,400 stores in China by 2019.

Starbucks currently has 2,000 stores in China, making it the company's second largest market after the U.S. The company has more than 12,000 stores in the U.S. that it either operates or licenses to others.

"Over time, it's conceivable that China could become our largest market," said Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, in a statement.

A Starbucks spokeswoman declined to specify when the company expects that to happen.

"We are deeply humbled by the enthusiasm with which Chinese people have embraced Starbucks as part of their daily ritual over the past 17 years," Schultz said.

Schultz visited Chengdu, China, this week and announced a new benefit for its Chinese workers. Some of its full-time baristas and shift supervisors at company-owned stores will be able to receive a monthly housing allowance that covers about 50 percent their monthly costs.

In addition to housing subsidies, Starbucks China is also introducing a program, already in place in the US, that allows employees who have worked at the company for at least 10 years to take a sabbatical of up to 12 months of unpaid leave.

Starbucks offers various employee benefits around the world, tailored to fit the cultures of the more than 65 countries where the chain has locations. In the US, Starbucks offers free and discounted college tuition to employees. In the UK, the company has launched a housing loan program for staff.

Shares of Starbucks Corp. rose $1.26, or 2.2 percent, to $59.08 in midday trading Tuesday. Its shares have risen more than 47 percent over the past year.