Starbucks and the death of hipster capitalism

Tasters choice?
Taster's choice? Hard to imagine

Howard Schultz, the visionary behind Starbucks, is worth $1.1 billion, which makes him one of the most successful businessmen of the Boomer cohort, and I’m saddened to read that he has completely lost his mind.

I began to question the lad’s commercial sense a year ago, when Schultz introduced instant oatmeal into his stores, and insisted it was a superior offering, absolutely the best oatmeal ever. I tried it. It was swill. At the time, you had to wonder the extent to which Schultz’s instincts would eventually decline, and I pondered the seemingly ludicrous notion that Starbucks might soon try to sell instant coffee to accompany the dreadful reconstituted oatmeal.

Well, as you’ve probably read, Schultz has gone and done that unlikely thing — but it’s even worse than that.

During the coming 72 hours, Starbucks will try to persuade you, by giving away samples of their new instant coffee, that the buck-a-cup synthetic is just as good as the three-dollar brewed coffee they’ve been pouring.

You see? I told you it wasnt that bad...
"You see? I told you it wasn't that bad..."

Toward what end? In the highly improbable case that the instant may not taste like something procured in bulk by the provisioning agents at the state Department of Corrections, Starbucks will have succeeded in conditioning their patrons to trade down, thus reducing their corporate revenues. Indeed, if discerning coffee-drinkers come to realize that the powdered substitute ain’t that bad, what is to prevent them from gravitating toward the neighborhood Wal-Mart, where the canny consumer can snare an entire month’s supply of the stuff, at the same price Schultz seeks for a single cup?

The question is moot, of course. Everyone knows that instant coffee is never going to be equivalent to the real stuff, in the same way that shaking a dose of generic “coffee whitener” on top of your joe is not the same as mixing in a daub of half-and-half. You can fib to yourself (or to your company’s directors), as Schultz has done, but it’s madness to think that you can pass the con along to your customers, and not suffer the consequence. There was a media buyer I used to visit, a fellow named Roy Chernoff, who used to offer up truly terrible instant coffee, out of an Old World impulse to be hospitable. I’d sip it politely and suffer silently, because Roy was a gentleman, and because I wanted very much for him to give me money. That was an altogether different set of circumstances from allowing Howard Schultz to think that I’m prepared to hand him cash to revisit my wretched-coffee-with-Roy moment. Heck with that.

What has gone wrong at Starbucks? It’s not simply that management seems anxious to diminish their brand by offering inferior new products. I’d say it’s more an issue of general entropy, the usual course of what happens when time passes by.

It isn’t Schultz’s fault that he’s become a stumble-bum overseeing an empire-in-retreat. It’s simply, sadly, that it isn’t 1984 any more, and the old acumen is likely to have suffered some wear-and-tear.

Ah, if we could all go back to the day when Howard and his buddies, all those baby boomer businessmen, used to be so adorable, as they opened their head shops and jeans stores and macrobiotic food kiosks and used record and comic book stores and leather outlets and stained-glass studios, sandblasting the walls and stripping the floors of the cheap retail space in the hip neighborhood, playing that same Moody Blues LP over and over again, filling the world’s nostrils with the stench of patchouli oil. They began as outsiders up against the forces of mainstream retailing, hipsters with a practical cut-throat streak.

Up here in Canada, once upon a time, the government even went so far as to tax funds from struggling wage-earners and redistribute them over to the little whipper-snappers who dreamed of opening up a funky candle store somewhere near the Farmer’s Market. And damned if the government didn’t want the money back — ever! It was free! Why? Just because it was so irresistable to encourage a rebellious, disaffected B.Comm.-grad who was starting a fresh new business venture in the cruel, cold world. Not very many of the hip capitalists endured for longer than a few months. As for the working-class families who financed these experiments, for their contributions they received the privilege of continuing to pay income tax until death. Hardly equitable, but that’s Canadian economics  for you.

“My dream is to bring lattes and chai tea to the masses,” is what Howard and all the other Howards might have inscribed in their high school yearbooks. (And if you’d told them then and there that they would survive only to become the kind of people who would just-add-water to packets of Nescafe and Quaker’s Oats, they probably would have threatened to idealistically pop you in the snoot.)

Things change — indeed they do — but I still can’t see this development at Starbucks as anything less than the curtain coming down on the age of the groovy entrepreneur. For Schultz won’t be content with merely trying to sell instant coffee. Watch for other, more absurd product introductions in the months to come: The world’s greatest instant chocolate pudding, accompanied with a superb spoonful of Dream Whip. The ultimate Spam sandwich on Wonder bread, topped with excellent mock-mayonnaise. A breakthrough in instant orange-y drinks, that you’ll swear is tastier than Tang, garnished with one pristine ice cube.

This isn’t what anyone would admiringly declare to be retro-chic. I fear it’s just time running out.

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