Many books have been written about the “Starbucks experience,” some criticizing it as lacking authenticity, and others heralding it as a gold standard.  This blog post is Melody’s take on what the “Starbucks experience” means.  This is not scientific.  It’s just my own experience and observation. Yes, I believe the “Starbucks experience” is real, and not some mythical Sasquatch that only leaves footprints but cannot be tied down. I’ve actually written about this in the comments to this blog but it is worth exploring here as its own post.  Melody’s theory: Breaking the Starbucks experience into its root pieces:

There are three pieces to the “Starbucks Experience”:

1.  The connection between the customer and the barista and the store – The Felt Sense and emotional part of the experience

2. The persuasion of the drink – The romance and theater

3. The drink itself – Quality and satisfaction

1.  The connection between the customer and the barista:  The felt sense and the emotional part of the experience:

This the part of the experience that is the hardest to pin down and describe.  In my mind it has to do tremendously with how genuine and real the barista interacts with the customer.  The reason that this is hard to describe is that many customers and baristas aren’t quite sure how to put into words what went wrong in an experience, if things go sour.  Conversely, when things go right, it too can be hard to describe.  Even harder, the part of this that is really important may vary slightly from customer to customer, though  I am utterly convinced the cornerstone of the connection is “be genuine.”  I fully believe that the overwhelming majority of customers can sense and know if a smile is fake, if a barista sounds scripted, and if the “yes” really means “no” when the “yes we can do that” has been delivered with a roll of the eyes.  We live in an era of pretty sophisticated customers.

Remember, this part of the experience has nothing to do with the actual beverage but relates to lots of non-spoken clues and signs. It may even be that the customer is aware that the baristas green apron doesn’t look very clean. Subconsciously, the customer might be a little more suspicious of the beverage that he or she receives.  A dirty store might send the same signal.

This part of the Starbucks experience cannot totally be taught.  I honestly think that there are some people who will never enjoy being a barista. It is an occupation that has a service element to it, and if a person doesn’t like service, perhaps this is not for them.

2. The persuasion of the drink – The romance and theater

Every customer has to believe that there is value in their beverage purchase.  They have to believe they’re getting something wonderful that cannot be easily replicated in their own kitchen.  This is not just the genuine smile and good service but it is about the art of the beverage.  Some of the examples surrounding this are customers who enjoy watching shot glasses being used in stores.  About a decade ago, when Starbucks started ripping the manual espresso machines out of stores and replacing them with automatic ones, for sure, some customers were forever lost to small independent coffee houses which manually pulled their shots. These customers loved watching the barista gets the beans from the hoppers, grind them, hand tamp them, and watch the shots being meticulously timed, and then the whap whap noise as the barista cleaned out the portafilter. There was a ton of theater and romance in that process. It doesn’t matter that many of those customers very likely would never be able to taste any difference when they’re drinking a Grande extra sweet white mocha, with so much milk and sugar that the espresso flavor is barely noticeable.  It was the theater and romance.

Starbucks seems to discount theater and romance, as if it doesn’t count for much, and only requires precious labor. But when we pay a premium for a beverage, we have to have some assurances that we’re getting something made just for us. Nobody wants a Big Mac that has been sitting under a heating lamp.  Mind you, I want to make it very very clear that the theater of the beverage is SEPARATE from the actual taste of the drink and the emotional connection that the barista has with the customer. I’m sure plenty of grumpy baristas can make fabulous drinks. These are all independent variables.

I’m going to give a couple more examples of the theater and romance of the beverage:  On, it is not all that unusual to have customers make threads upset that their beverage has been stirred, not shaken.

I sometimes wonder that if these customers would taste a difference between a shaken and a stirred drink in a blind taste test? Well, maybe some would and some would not. The point only being that watching the drink being shaken is integral to the theater and romance of the drink.  It’s part of what persuades these customers that the beverage is worth spending money on.

Yet another example relates to the Clover coffee brewer which also is loaded with theater and fun.  You can pick any coffee. The barista rips open the flavorlock bag. Your beans are ground fresh before your eyes, and definitely you’ll get a nice aroma if you’re anywhere near the grinder. The barista hand produces your drink just for you, and you get to see the puck of grounds come up magically on the filter. The barista dials in the right settings on the Clover for the coffee. There are lots of great steps.

If, hypothetically, when you ordered your beverage, the barista could turn to a food replicator and utter the words, “tea, earl grey, hot” and then your drink would magically appear, for many many customers all the theater of the drink would be lost.

This is also the area where sometimes short cuts have an unseen cost. I have no doubt that often times the customer cannot taste any difference, but the customer who feels like some shortcut was taken with his or her beverage will often times be left with a nagging feeling like it wasn’t worth the money.

3. The drink itself – Quality and satisfaction

Last but not least, part of the Starbucks experience is the actual drink the customer ordered. No matter if the store is full of really great baristas, and no short cut was taken, it is still possible that the customer might not be satisfied with the beverage.  If a customer runs into a store, sees a friendly barista, pays for a cup of drip-brewed coffee, and gets back to his or her car and realizes that there are grounds in it, and it’s not hot enough, then that’s going to be a disappointment.  The promise of a perfect beverage wasn’t met.

I want to make it clear that it is really possible that both of the above two things go perfectly right, and the customer is still unhappy with the actual beverage. If a barista is making a iced mocha, and for some reason either the mocha or the milk has gone bad or is not up to par, the drink satisfaction won’t be there.  It won’t really matter that the customer got to see it being shaken.

There are a million and one ways that a barista can do everything perfectly right (or at least totally appear to do everything right), and yet still not produce a perfect drink.  There will be times the barista might miss a watery shot, brew old beans in the Clover inadvertently,  have bananas that don’t taste right or too under-ripe or over-ripe, the barista failed to follow the right recipe proportions for the new Frappuccino… the list goes on.

The remedy here is simple: Remake the drink.  If the drink can’t be remade to the customer’s satisfaction, it would seem that that would be the time to give the customer a sincere “I’m sorry… It looks like all of our bananas are not ripe enough! Here: Your next drink is on us …” and a customer service recovery coupon.


Everything is important.  And each customer is going to place a different level of importance on the three above segments of the experience.  Some partners might be reading this and wondering, “where does speed of service fit in the above three things?”.  I would categorize it as part of number one because some customers just want their experience to be fast. I feel though that sometimes the speed of service conversation is a little exaggerated.  I genuinely believe that many customers will slow down for a moment, and wait patiently when convinced that they’re getting something special at Starbucks. After all, who wants their momentary special break in the day to last three minutes? We forget that there are people who want to savor the experience.

The bottom line though is that “retail is in the detail” and everything is important.

Your comments are welcome! Do you agree or disagree with my theory? (Hopefully I won’t totally get torn apart in the comments over this blog post!)