Would You Like Fries With That Latte?

A few days ago, as I was shuffling the newspapers on the kitchen table into a manageable stack, there was a headline on the front page of the Wall Street Journal that caught my eye: “McDonald’s Takes On A Weakened Starbucks.” The article went on to describe how McDonald’s plans to install “coffee bars” and hire baristas in 14,000 US locations this year.

Apparently, McDonald’s thinks that the customers buying Venti lattes at Starbucks would be willing to get a “super size” version at McDonald’s. Not me ““ I don’t believe that going to Starbucks and McDonald’s are equivalent experiences ““ but my marketing instincts about what holds sales potential might not be the best ““ I never would have thought that people would pay for water in bottles either.

Call me a corporate sell out, but I really like Starbucks. And when I thought about Starbucks and McDonald’s turning into the same place, I starting getting downright protective about my relationship with Starbucks ““ almost as if I were the snooty girl back in high school. “How dare McDonald’s think that I would go out with him!”

Back to reality”¦I feel so loyal to Starbucks because it represents a lot more to me than just a cup of coffee. I can get coffee at a 7Eleven. However, when I think of Starbucks, I remember the dozens of good times I’ve had there. I can get downright sentimental about it. Whether it is at the Starbucks five minutes from our house or when we’ve been on vacation, my memory is of sitting at one of their little round tables laughing with the kids and watching the girls linger over the whipped cream on their Vanilla Frappuccinos. And Starbucks continues to be a place of refreshment for us; when Steve and I need a change of scenery from our home office, we head to Starbucks for a sandwich and an iced tea.

But we would never consider going to McDonald’s even if we could get the same drinks and food there. When we deserve a break today, we go to Starbucks. So what makes Starbucks different ““ is it only better graphics and a couple of overstuffed chairs?

Even as devoted as I am to Starbucks, I have to admit there are a lot of similarities between the two places. Both offer a predicable, dependable experience. No matter what Starbucks (or McDonald’s) I go into, I know I’ll always find the same choices. I’m sure this is a major reason for the success of both places; once you have found a favorite item to order, it’s one less stress-causing decision to make.

And both places certainly cater to many of the same customers. There are as many moms with preschoolers in Starbucks in the morning as I’ve ever seen at a McDonald’s. In fact, I can imagine a time in the not to distant future when Starbucks introduces “Mermaid Meals” and outdoor “Starscapes” for the kids to play on.

But Starbucks has built their reputation on treating every customer like an individual. It’s almost a matter of pride for some people to show what a unique person they are by their drink order. Hence, the “extra hot, light foam, three pumps, half-caf” infinite combinations that are available at Starbucks.

But as anybody who has ever tried to order a cheeseburger without onions at McDonald’s will tell you, special requests bring their system to a halt. Everything about McDonald’s is about producing the same product over and over. So in a sense, no customer at McDonald’s is special, everyone gets the same order. And according to the WSJ article, this is going to be the case for their coffee bars too. Their process will be much more automated and with far fewer choices than at Starbucks.

I think McDonald’s cold systemization is a major reason why Starbucks doesn’t have a lot to fear from Mickey D’s venture into coffee drinks. It’s easy these days to start feeling like one of the nameless masses ““ so expressing your individuality ““ even if it’s just when ordering coffee ““ “Decaf soy latte for Colleen” ““ is important and why I believe people will continue to be loyal to Starbucks.

And customer service? McDonald’s has a long way to go to compete with Starbucks in that area. When my son was a barista at Starbucks, he would come home with stories about how someone could send a drink back time and time again if it wasn’t exactly what they wanted. Last time I picked up a quick dinner for my daughter at McDonald’s they left the fries out of the bag. When I told them about it the next time, their response was a sullen “Did you call it in?” And then they charged me for the fries again.

The issue of Starbucks being vulnerable to McDonald’s left me a little sad. I remember a time when IHOPs and Baskin Robbins were cool places to go”¦am I clinging to a place that’s on its way to becoming a has-bean? I hope not.

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