Sartre, sitars and coffee culture

COSTA COFFEE is the chain of coffee shops that seemed to get left behind in the rush among caffeine fiends for all things American. But in the past few days it has raised its profile.

Not only has it been appointed exclusive caterer to Go, the British Airways no-frills airline, but it has been chosen as the partner in an intriguing retail experiment.

Though Costa has sought to make its 85-odd UK outlets more traditional than the shops run by Seattle Coffee Company and others, it has been chosen by Don Storper, the fledgling US record mogul, as a route into the British market for his "world music" CDs. In another move, the chain may start philosophy evenings at shops.

Mr Storper, who started Putumayo World Music after a spell selling ethnic clothing and gifts in New York, has already signed up about 100 gift shops as outlets for his compilations of music from around the world. But he sees coffee shops as an ideal retail channel because they provide a relaxed environment in which customers might feel inclined to buy the music they hear.

His US experience suggests that his hunch may be correct. Having launched the label in 1993 in response to the interest among customers in the compilation tapes he played in what became a chain of six boutiques (he has since sold them), he was the first to sell CDs in the cafes sited in many of the bookshops run by Borders and Barnes and Noble, the US book retailing firms now moving into Britain.

Mr Storper is quick to point out that large record retailers sell significant amounts of his CDs, but he adds that much of his new company's success comes from the discs being sold through more than 2,000 non-traditional retailers, including clothing and gift shops, clubs, restaurants and book shops.

Although he is convinced that the market for world music is strong and growing, he recognises that its potential has been limited by the buying policies of many record retailers, the conservatism of radio stations and the reluctance of many would-be buyers of his records to go to traditional record shops.

"We are in a position where we need to create and adapt the means of distribution and retail," he says.

In the United States psychologists estimate that there about 44 million potential customers of the kind termed "culture creatives" because they tend to be highly-educated, well-travelled and open to fresh ideas. Mr Storper sees no reason why they should not make up at least as great a proportion of the population in Britain and Europe, but they have in effect been "disenfranchised", he says. While accepting that American and European pop music is not without its appeal, he believes that providing an outlet for other sounds provides spice, much like the introduction of international cuisine. "There's a real disconnect between people and their ability to buy music like this," he says. "Some don't even know what they are missing."

Meanwhile Costa Coffee sees the venture, which will involve Putumayo music being played in the shops and a special "Music from the Coffee Lands" compilation being sold at the tills, as fitting well with its desire to be seen as a quality supplier of coffee. "It's just what you want to hear when you're relaxing," says Jason Snowden, the Whitbread subsidiary's operations manager.

The company's planned philosophy evenings spring from its recognition of the role of coffee-house culture in the origins of the Lloyd's of London insurance market and of gentlemen's clubs.

pounds 49m cup, Review, p10

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