Starbucks drops identikit stores

MD says chain's identikit decor will be ditched in favour of bolder, more quirky outlets

Britain's biggest coffee-shop chain is to abandon its decade-long policy of starting identikit stores in the hope that less homogeneous shops will lift sales.

Out will go the muted beige and greens, uniform furniture and signage. And in will come local artefacts, bolder colours, bigger community noticeboards and possibly second-hand furniture in a move to create more individual stores.

Darcy Willson-Rymer, Starbucks' UK and Ireland managing director, admitted the US multinational had erred during its rapid expansion. "I think we tried to put a bit too much process into the stores. We have to reflect what food the customers want. As we evolve our store design, we have to do it in a way that resonates with people.

"We have made mistakes in the past that we need to correct, but the fundamentals are fantastic," he said

At present, Starbucks designs stores with colours and furniture from a central corporate palette, a technique that has speeded its sprint to 16,000 outlets worldwide.

However, trading in the UK is tough for the world's biggest coffee chain. Although the number of customers has risen, spend per customer has fallen "by a little".

After taking over the UK business last August, Mr Willson-Rymer consulted with the company's 9,000 staff about how to take the business forward.

"At the end of that eight-week period, when people asked me, 'give me your summary', I said: 'The business is run 80 per cent heart and 20 per cent head and we tried to flip it on its head'. I don't know what the right proportion is, but I believe that the heart is back in the company."

The revamp fits into a global plan to make Starbucks less corporate. In its home city, Seattle, it has opened a store without its usual branding, '15th Ave. Coffee and Tea Inspired by Starbucks' – which also serves beer and wine.

Although there is no sign customers here will be able to order a rioja rather than a grande latte, the cafés will look different. "We're working through what we need to do specifically for the UK market, but it's this notion that there isn't a single palette. In every store, there will be something that is locally relevant," said Mr Willson-Rymer.

"The thing that needs to be the same in every store is the latte, the cappuccino, the product and the culture of coffee tastings and the knowledge."

In response to complaints about its calorific cakes and paninis, porridge and carrot sticks are being trialled. Next week, Starbucks will announce holders of its loyalty cards will receive free Wi-Fi.

The changes are intended to make a deeper connection with customers amid intense rivalry for discretionary spending in the recession. Unlike in the US, Starbucks in Britain faces stiff competition from Costa Coffee, and is being undercut by cheaper coffees from McDonald's and Wetherspoon pubs.

The firm has been accused of siting homogeneous outlets in high streets across the UK. "What we did was set the standard, then we allowed people to catch us up," said Mr Willson-Rymer.

Starbucks in numbers

16,120 number of cafés worldwide

49 countries with Starbucks

172,000 workforce worldwide

1998 year Starbucks opened in UK

11,000 outlets in US; there are also 1,000 in Canada and 800 in Japan

750 stores in Britain and Ireland, its biggest market in Europe

2 million UK customers served weekly