Authenticity issue at Starbucks

July 11, 2013

Will the chain’s smoking ban outside of its coffeehouses send some drinkers to Dunkin’ and c-stores instead?

A Starbucks coffeehouse, to us, has long conveyed an image of tolerance and freedom. It’s a place where minds could wander to the tunes of new artists, where customers could satisfy an array of cravings, where a person with a laptop could occupy a wifi seat for hours over a single cup of coffee—all with no hassle.

So The Lempert Report was surprised when the chain imposed a cigarette-smoking ban within 25 feet of most company-owned stores in the U.S. and Canada. After all, coffee and cigarettes go together like ice cream and apple pie. We don’t believe this policy would exist if Starbucks made money selling tobacco products. We’ll soon see if this policy pushes some customers to convenience stores, which are ubiquitous, sell both product lines prominently, and often serve high-quality coffee at far lower prices. 

This policy also comes at a time when Starbucks aims to fill in more non-western markets throughout the U.S., and analysts told the Boston Globe, it will compete head-to-head with more Dunkin’ Donuts stores expanding beyond their northeastern strongholds.

We understand the desire to promote customer comfort in and around its stores—especially with smoking bans increasingly popular today and the diminishing number of adult smokers across the country (thus a lower calculated risk for the chain).  

Starbucks may be able to sweep this in under the societal trend without much backlash. Yet we see the chain walking a fine line in authenticity with its customers—since it capitalizes on products high in caffeine and sugar, which don’t top nutrition lists. It’s not that we advocate smoking—we don’t—but consistency is a desirable retail trait that seems to be lacking here.  We feel drug stores face a similar authenticity issue when they sell tobacco products under the same roof as a pharmacy.