Dazzled by a Coffee Shop Chain

Starbucks: there have already been whole books written about this international marketing phenomenon, and that should be no surprise. Perhaps only George W. Bush himself better illustrates how a product, however average, can successfully be sold to the masses if you just have the ad money to spend and get the promotional campaign right. For me, Starbucks’ success in making an outright fetish out of coffee – so that people are willing to line up at a counter to spend on the order of $5.00 for a single cup – is emblematic of the American go-go years of not so long ago, before the big Crash, as innumerable people stuck a Grande Caffè Mocha into the drinks-holder of their SUV as they set off to visit the properties they had bought no-money-down to “flip” for a profit as soon as possible.

The company’s progress within Europe is of particular amusement, especially Central Europe which, after all, originally introduced the café/coffeehouse and coffee culture in general to the world a little less than four centuries ago. It’s a bit as if GM were to establish a high-performance automotive division in Northern Italy, with the explicit mission of showing Ferrari, Lancia, etc. how the game should be played. Belgium, at least, has heretofore largely avoided this scourge, but apparently not for long, as we see from the recent article by Caroline Boeur in La Dernière Heure with the breathless title Soon a fifth Starbucks?

That’s right, right now all of Belgium boasts only four such establishments. (France, in contrast, has fifty). A full three of them are located together at Zaventem, the Brussels airport, while the fourth is at Antwerp’s central train station. As Boeur explains, in the first instance this has to do with Belgians’ preference for drinking their coffee at home, rather than in public: in contrast to the scant number of Starbucks, the Philips Senseo (a luxury coffee-maker) has 40% penetration among Belgian households, and apparently home expresso machines (which the Senseo is not; Boeur does not make that clear) have become “cult objects.”

Then again, the Antwerp Starbucks, in particular, has witnessed scenes usually only encountered at the opening of the first McDonalds at places like Moscow or Beijing: hundreds of people lined up before the doors hours before the official opening last 24 February, followed by profit figures that place it among the five-best within Europe. (Oh, and hundreds of fans on its very own Facebook fan page as well, although it’s safe to say that wasn’t true for McDonalds in Moscow or Beijing.)

Rest assured, then, that both Starbucks and its partner in Belgium, Autogrill (an Italian-headquartered firm specializing in restaurants at airports and auto rest-stops), are giving the task of further expansion top priority, although both are tight-lipped about when and where the next coffee shop will spring forth. And the fact that the DH can write on the subject with a tone that recalls movie star fan magazines shows that the media there continues to drink the purple Starbucks cool-aid – er, coffee.

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