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Expat's Eye
Cover Stories Series 2013> Coffee Craze in China> Expat's Eye
UPDATED: May 8, 2007 NO.19 MAY 10, 2007
Starbucks Invasion
Starbucks has tried to make inroads into Chinese culture by offering the typical Western coffee house experience--complete with Western prices and ambiance

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal detailed Starbucks' growing concern about the erosion of the Starbucks "experience," a problem resulting from the company's rapid expansion and push for ever-greater efficiency. Chairman Howard Schultz lamented in an 800-word corporate memo that the "romance and theater" of Starbucks--the aroma of freshly ground coffee beans, the barista's personal touch--had fallen by the wayside. Of course, the coffee itself is only a part of the Starbucks experience, which for many people is more about the brand's cache and a comfortable social gathering place than about the beverages. This would seem to be particularly true in China, where 90 percent of customers consume their beverages within the store itself, as opposed to only 20 percent in the United States. Indeed, it seems that the erosion of the experience has yet to hit China, where the company banks on the fact that Starbucks coffee by any other name would not taste as sweet. Moreover, in this land of tea drinkers and teahouses, it is hard to imagine that the average Starbucks patron goes to a coffee house seeking a friendlier, more personable environment. There is some other motivation at work.

Since opening its first store in Beijing's China World Trade Center in 1999, Starbucks has tried to make inroads into Chinese culture by offering, if not entirely introducing, the typical Western coffee house experience--complete with Western prices and ambiance. For many young Chinese, a visit to Starbucks is a glimpse into Western culture, as it is difficult to spot anything Chinese about the place. How ironic then that the relatively newfangled company is worried about losing its character and panache back home, when it was not long ago that a row erupted on a Chinese website about the Starbucks located inside the Forbidden City. Thousands signed an Internet petition to have the store closed down. It would seem many more Chinese are concerned with Starbucks attacking their own culture than about any commoditization of the brand itself.

Indeed, in many ways Starbucks is the living proof that you can take the coffee shop out of the West, but you cannot take the West--and its ubiquitous presence -- out of the coffee shop. There are already 436 Starbucks locations on the Chinese mainland, in Taiwan and Hong Kong, with the company intent on expanding. How fitting then that Starbucks is going through the same growing pains that China itself is facing, namely how to reconcile cultural preservation--or in the case of Starbucks, corporate cultural preservation-with rapid expansion. Just don't expect many Chinese to lose sleep over the erosion of the Starbucks brand. In both cases, a cynic might say that tradition and development are mutually exclusive, but after a grande Caramel Macchiato or two, things begin to look a little rosier.

When my family came to visit me in Beijing last Christmas, we spent more time in Starbucks than in any of the city's historical sites. Indeed, when they found out about the Forbidden City Starbucks controversy, they were only disappointed that they had missed the chance to grab a latte on their way in. They seemed much more interested in seeking out Western comforts than diving into Chinese culture, and after a week, much to my horror, they had catalogued every Starbucks they had been to. They balked at neither the 30-yuan mochas nor the lack of personal touch; they were just grateful to be able to read the menu and momentarily feel at home. It was at that moment that I realized the true Starbucks experience--in Beijing at least--has very little to do with the barista or the music playing in the background. It is much more about familiarity and comfort, even if the majority of Chinese people have yet to become acquainted with this brand of familiarity.

Starbucks is a particularly modern phenomenon and, in China, a necessarily foreign one, but the Chinese are catching on quickly. Its emergence has inspired countless other coffee shops to pop up around major Chinese cities, all trying to capture Starbucks' mystique. But just as in the case of McDonald's hamburgers or Coca-Cola's soda, imitation is the highest form of flattery. Indeed, it would seem that the Starbucks brand is alive and well in China, not in small part owing to its commoditization. The coffeehouse's appeal is its accurate reproduction of something Western: 436 times over to be exact. What's more, there is something to be said for gaining a foothold in a foreign culture by making every store look the same. This would be anathema for Schultz, but in a land as sprawling, diverse, and rapidly developing as China, sometimes less change is a welcome change.

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