I loved Starbucks when they were the only act in town, before the advent of the great coffee rush. As the market became saturated and fierce competition brewed, improvements at competing shops, ranging from roasted bean quality and diversity of non-dairy options to ambience and hours of operation, left Starbucks in their wake. (Granted, their stock price defies such an observation, but my judgment of Starbucks is purely from the perspective of personal fit, not EBITDA).
Having previously lived in Paris, where Starbucks was an oasis for beleaguered, home sick American ex-pats, and thus in my (perhaps) futile quest to become Parisian, you would never find me within meters of Seattle’s best. That changed when I moved to Chelsea, in Manhattan.
In the face of a seemingly infinite number of premium (if not bourgeois) coffee shops at my immediate disposal, from Swedish Fika to Intelligentsia in the Highline Hotel, there is only one place at which I get my daily dose of my spirit animal: Starbucks.
Alas, this is no ordinary Starbucks.
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This is Starbucks of 23rd and 8th. While it certainly doesn’t hurt that I’m in good company there with Anna Wintour, Katie Holmes and Dascha Polanco, the real celebrities are Cathy, Najah and Glen.
I take that back, they aren’t celebrities. Rather, they’re family. While other baristas may know the proportion of foam I like in my almond milk cortado, my Starbucks family provides comfort when they can see my face is plagued with work-related anxiety.
I find ironic amusement in the fact that in one of the most corporate, template driven, blueprint-oriented food-service establishments in the world, I have garnered a surprising amount of fulfillment. I’ve confided in my Starbucks family I don’t even like Starbucks coffee. Frankly, it’s bitter and over roasted, if not burnt. And yet, at 8 pm every weeknight as I rejuvenate myself with a second wind of energy to finish client work, rest assured that I will be there.
This special Starbucks is a refreshing reminder that even in product-driven industries, service can still be a key differentiator. Resting on the laurels of having championed a solid product is simply not enough. The fact that Starbucks can overcome my negative bias to the brand by having exemplary ambassadors reaffirms such an outlook that much more.
I am always the first to admit that we don’t have the best product at ROYCE. It’s very good and honestly goes head to head with the craftsmanship of luxury labels, perhaps even indiscernible if you removed the labels. However, it’s not great. It’s certainly not iconic.
But that’s okay! I’m on a first name basis with more than 100 consumers a day; my email response time is faster than some automated replies; I mark special occasions on my calendar to surprise our loyal ROYCE family. In fact, as I write this, I am currently waiting for our customer of the month to meet me for dessert in Nolita to discuss how we can improve the fit of our passport wallets, as she constructively suggested.
The sad part of being a gifting company is that it’s revenue is seasonally based and that can be a cash flow nightmare at times. The saddest part of being a gifting company is not getting to interact with our consumers on a daily basis akin to my daily ritual at Starbucks. Not to knock the department store buyers I work with every day, but there’s a far more gratifying sense of satisfaction in engaging with the wonderful people who chose us to represent them in their gifting needs. The inherent pride associated with knowing that they trust us most for conveying a congratulations or a happy birthday supersedes the satisfaction derived from receiving any sized wholesale purchase order.
Companies are all too often categorized by type of product manufactured. This is false. Ultimately, we are all service companies; it’s just a matter of where on the spectrum we manifest that value.