Starbucks Doesn’t Sell Coffee

I have a dark secret to tell. Since leaving Sydney some months ago, I've spent countless hours in Starbucks.

Like many people from Australia, my first reaction to hearing the word Starbucks is generally a visceral gut reflux that I do my best to swallow. Had you asked me before if I would go to a Starbucks for coffee I would have laughed at you. However, here I am drinking another "tooru amerikaano" (tall long black) writing this article.

Here's my post-rationalised, self-justifying explanation for why it's ok:

Starbucks doesn't actually sell coffee.

That's true both in the figurative sense and in the literal.

From overhearing peoples orders and seeing an overabundance of Strawberry Frappuccinos around the cafe, most Japanese don't actually drink coffee here. Sweet drinks packed with sugar and cream are by far the most popular, and probably the most profitable. But that's not really the point.

Starbucks sells the environment

Starbucks is amazing at creating a consistently attractive ambient environment for a wide mix of uses. You have the office crowd who love the big tables, power points, and free wifi. You have the intimate two-person tables which are winners for the first dates and lovers. Then there are the big windows overlooking some prominent intersection or street that attract the single idlers passing time.

The music is softly eclectic. Usually a mix of jazz and some soft pop. It gives you the feeling of being comfortable without feeling overly tired. Just loud enough to mask any quiet intervals of banter without being a nuisance to conversation.

People don't buy drinks from Starbucks, they pay an entrance fee.

And with a focus on getting the most prominent, high-traffic retail locations, they are very very good at collecting fees. Couple that with extremely consistent high-awareness branding and you have a winning combo.

In short, Starbucks has mastered the art of selling the cafe feel, not of being a cafe. It doesn't matter what they sell, or how good their coffee is. As long as it remains drinkable (which it is) they will continue to dominate.

Good for you Starbucks 👍


Sebastian Kade, Founder of Sumry and Author of Living Happiness, is a software designer and full-stack engineer. He writes thought-provoking articles every now and then on

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