Britain’s performance in coffee-shops may be better than the Americans – we make as good coffee as they do, and we may possibly be more polite than they are (but not always). But we are probably not as tidy.
The judgments come from a unique figure in the world beverage scene, who is in Britain this month. Known as ‘Winter’, he is a man on a worldwide mission to visit every single branch of Starbucks in the whole world. He is in Britain to add another 400 or so to his total, which currently stands at 8,430 American stores (or 99.2% of the US total) and 733 international Starbucks cafes.
Most of the international press refer to Winter as an ‘obsessive’, and concentrate on the curious nature of his one-man quest. As we pointed out to him during his current trip, the really curious thing is that, although he must be one of the few people in the world to have been in nearly ten thousand coffee-houses, neither Starbucks itself, nor any other coffeehouse business, have tried to use his unique knowledge of the chain’s international business from a customer’s perspective. Starbucks does not even pick his brains as a ‘mystery shopper’.
However, Winter did take a few minutes to chat to us about the differences he sees between British branches of Starbucks and the American ones.
The biggest one, it turns out, is in courtesy.
“I do observe the way the baristas handle customers, and I'd say the biggest difference is because the UK is part of the EU, and so your Starbucks are staffed by a much higher percentage of immigrants than American stores, and I imagine those cultural differences translate to normal customer interactions. I've certainly noticed less smiling from the Eastern Europeans - in fact, there was an article a while back about how Russian baristas had to be trained on how to smile more!
“If we are just talking about native Brits vs native American staff, I would give a slight edge to the Brits. I do perceive the English as being more polite than Americans.”
Having said that, Winter’s online blog does blast some London stores for their customer-service attitude, and their lack of knowledge of their chain in general: “I have experienced the pain that is trying to deal with Starbucks baristas on the phone - they're getting paid for their time, and yet they can be so incredibly difficult if I ask them to do something as simple as try to remember if a store is closed on a Thursday, or was it a Friday.
“How hard can it be to keep baristas well-informed?”
However, reports the international Starbucks-watcher, the chain’s British stores certainly do fall behind their American counterparts in appearance and cleanliness.
“I don’t say they are badly designed, but I don’t care for some of the bathroom fixtures, or the size of some… but I think there are restrictions imposed by the size of the existing building. London stores, perhaps because they are so busy, tend to be messier. Suburban American Starbucks stores are usually spotless.”
Strangely, Starbucks does not support or assist Winter in his quest. He always explains his quest, and asks store managers to give him a free drink, and most do – but there is no instruction on the matter from Starbucks. The occasional store manager will recognise him and occasionally give him a ‘loaded’ Starbucks card which qualifies him for some more free drinks, but the chain’s management have not actually gone out of their way to welcome him to Britain.
“The former UK managing director did meet with me when I came here in ’03, and chatted at length, but not this time. But the store managers have received me quite favourably – overall, I'm more well-received by Starbucks in Britain – in America, they keep me at arm’s length!”
By Ian Boughton