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Copying All the Wrong Things

Many businesses are established because they find an idea that has taken hold in our culture, and want a piece of that pie. So if Starbucks can earn billions each quarter, what you often find is smaller upstarts vying to capture 1% of that market.

You saw this when Google became a juggernaut, with new search engines launching with the idea that if they could generate even 3% of Google’s traffic, then they would all be rich.

A few weeks back I wrote about what made one Starbucks shop exceptional, how it adapted to a situation to better serve customers.

This left me considering how many people look to emulate Starbucks, and whether or not they are finding value in doing so.

I frequent quite a few coffee shops, and by and large, I see many of them copying all the wrong things from Starbucks.

I am thinking of two easy examples, which I won’t name, but one is near where I live in New Jersey and the other is in Manhattan. Generally, this is my experience with these stores:

  • They look just like Starbucks. The layout of the stores, the items they sell along the wall, the lighting, the decorating and the overall ‘look and feel.’
  • The products strive to be familiar copies of what Starbucks sells. The goal seems to be to ride the coattails of Starbucks, to leverage Starbucks’ huge ad budgets. So the beverage selection is a near direct copy of what Starbucks offers. Nothing unique, unless they tweak their version of a Vivanno to include guava instead of strawberry.
  • The processes are exactly the same: from ordering to the beverage delivery process. Again – this is likely to leverage the money Starbucks spent on research & development, and to provide customers with a familiar experience. The issue here is that there are some things that work about this process, and others that don’t, from a customer perspective. From a process perspective, you will notice that Starbucks has a system of how their employees communicate to work quickly and efficiently, with a goal of reducing mistakes by repeating drink orders twice. I rarely see this process emulated at other coffee shops, even if the setup looks similar to Starbucks.
  • Employee training seems to be a top priority at Starbucks, and minimal at other coffee shops.  I have sat next to people being interviewed for a job at Starbucks, and its a very detailed interview – it is clear that the manager is looking for someone who has the right attitude and whose life is setup to commit themselves to making Starbucks a core part of their world.Employees are always friendly, and do their best to create a pleasant coffee shop experience – it is clear that they are trained to give you the feel of being a friendly local coffee shop.Many of the other coffee shops I go to have adequately trained their employees on the cash register and on making drinks, but beyond that, each employee brings his or her own work ethic and personality. And while I like to think this would be a positive thing, it often isn’t. Perhaps they great you with a huge hello as they were told to, but beyond that they barely look at you, are more engaged in conversation with co-workers, or spend more effort restocking cups than serving the customer right in front of them. When you couple this with the amount of time I get the wrong order at some of these places, it makes for a mediocre experience at best. Kind of like getting gas or checking out at the foodstore. It gets the job done, and that is all.

And this is where it all falls apart: I am left with an experience that looks and feels like Starbucks, but minus the soul – minus the little things that their employees and overall brand delivers that creates unique value and a pleasant experience.

The funny thing is, I am not really a huge fan of Starbucks.  But I do appreciate their employee’s attitudes and I do appreciate the free wi-fi and their support of the concept of ‘the third place,’ a place that you can relax at that is between work and home.

In your business, be it online or in person, when you look to a successful company as your model for growth, consider if you are copying the right elements. Are you wrapping a lump of coal to make it look like a successful product, or are you delivering core value: something unique, something valuable and something that will stand out to your customers, leaving them with smiles on their faces.

  • ilenesilver

    Once again, Dan, you spell out for us what we feel is true, but often times can't quite put the finger on it. Understanding the nuances, and being able to explain them is a gift to all your readers. I'd point out one more, cleanliness. The shops must be clean.

    • Thanks Ilene! And yes, cleanliness is essential.