What Librarians Can Learn From Starbucks’ Fall

The announcement that Starbucks would close 600 stores and layoff approximately 1,200 employees has a fair number of analysts asking what happened. How is it the once infallible Starbucks, a company that seemed to have limitless growth, has run into serious trouble? According to John Quelch, a blogger for Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge, Starbucks simply couldn’t sustain its growth. But more importantly Starbucks was failing to sustain what made them so popular in the first place – the experience.  Quelch eloquently sums up the problem in his blog post:

Starbucks is a mass brand attempting to command a premium price for an experience that is no longer special. Either you have to cut price (and that implies a commensurate cut in the cost structure) or you have to cut distribution to restore the exclusivity of the brand.

While it’s too early in the game to find many libraries, academic or otherwise, that currently deliver a unique user experience, it still makes sense to take away some valuable lessons from Starbucks current situation. We can use that knowlege to help us in establishing a more sustainable library user experience. You could point out one big difference between Starbucks and a library. The company has thousands of stores across several continents. The typical library may have a few branches, and isn’t likely to open many more. But that big difference aside, what we can learn is how to better manage the delivery of the user experience.

First, Starbucks grew too big to deliver its unique experience of treating customers personally and having them recognized by the baristas. Libraries need to develop a better public service experience, one that leverages personal recognition and specialization. If the reference desk is too busy for that let’s get those who want more attention into the hands of a librarian who has time to provide more personalized assistance. And let’s remember those folks and greet them every time we see them. As Quelch points out, once loyal Starbucks customers have migrated to newer, more specialized cafes. What we can learn from Starbucks is that people want a unique experience in which they are recognized and treated with a personal touch. Foget that and you lose the experience.

Second, try to identify a few core services and make sure they are delivered extremely well by caring library workers. According to Quelch Starbucks expanded its food and beverage menu to the point where the drinks got so complicated that it meant baristas spent more time making the drinks and less time interacting with customers. The lesson here is that libraries need to keep their services basic and to the point, so that librarians can spend more time creating relationships with the user community. That will provide far more meaning in the long run than an extensive menu of databases and technology options. As Starbucks is finding out, McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts can deliver a premium cup of coffee at a far cheaper price. If there’s no difference in the experience at those other places, why would anyone go to a Starbucks. Does that sound familiar to librarians? What kind of experience do your users get at your library or using your website to get to the databases? If getting information at your library is no different than using a search engine to pull information off Wikipedia or YouTube, why be surprised at the lack of interest from the bulk of your community.

Quelch finishes by pointing to Starbucks’ rapid expansion as its main source of trouble. In seeking profits it just grew too big too fast. But in doing so the chain sacrificed its brand and unique experience. No library will face this exact problem, but we should keep in mind Quelch’s point about the need for controlled growth at a steady pace. Whatever efforts we make to design a better library user experience we must remind ourselves that the best experiences are the ones that are the end product of a thoughtful design process. 

9 thoughts on “What Librarians Can Learn From Starbucks’ Fall”

  1. If part of Starbucks’ unique experience has been “treating customers personally and having them recognized by the baristas,” that was dependent on their being part of a physical neighborhood where people live, work, or regularly pass through. Libraries may not have the same kind of physical neighborhoods — although branches, especially in public libraries certainly serve that role – but many have intellectual neighborhoods with staff who know their customers and understand the kinds of things they need. It’s a different kind of user experience than takes place at general service points.

    I work four hours a week on the general reference desk in an academic library. I enjoy the variety, but, with some exceptions, most of the faces are unfamiliar and, like Starbucks employees dealing not just with coffee but with complicated drinks and a growing variety of foods, I can’t possibly bring the same knowledge and experience into all of the conversations that I do in my own core subject.

    But I spend most of my time working with communication studies students in the communication neighborhood. It’s not a physical location. I interact with students in classrooms, in my office, via Meebo and e-mail, on subject guides and course pages, via the Comm Department’s e-newsletter, in the dining halls, on the shuttle bus, wherever and whenever. It’s their neighborhood, and they know I’m there and how to find me. And unlike the reference desk, if they have to come back they know they’re going to get me again.

    In this neighborhood, I not only know many of the students, I know their courses, their assignments, the quirks of their professors, the kinds of problems other students have run into, and, of course, how to find and make use of available resources to help them.

    This may not work everywhere and for everyone, but for many libraries and librarians it’s one of the ways we can leverage specialization and personal recognition to become part of the neighborhood and build a unique user experience.

  2. I agree with the premise of the basic post, but think that the seemingly daunting task of really knowing all those customers isn’t really quite as big a task as it might seem. When I first went to Starbucks (in San Diego, many years ago), the workers certainly didn’t know most of the customers. But they did know a few. And they did ask everyone’s name. Not just to write the name on the cup, but (seemingly) because they wanted to know. I’ve found that a quick introduction “I’m Dale,” (pause for a moment, in case the customer wants to provide a name) “how can I help you today?” is a simple way to create that kind of feeling. I’ve worked in tiny branch libraries, where I did know many customers and in huge central libraries, where I had very few repeat customers. In either case, though, the customers can feel welcome.

    I also used to work at a library that used the Starbucks idea of being “exclusive” very well. We advertised storytimes in the newspaper, with specific days to enroll. Any child who missed more than 3 sessions of the “term” (which was about 9 weeks) without notifying the library in advance had officially canceled. When the storytimes were full, we developed a waiting list. It wasn’t anything like the ordinary “drop in” storytime”. Our director felt that children needed to interact with the same children for a few weeks and that parents needed to understand that this was a quality professional service. Also, it mean that the children’s librarian could build on concepts from week to week.

    Now, in reality, any child who had “dropped out” was allowed back in, often to any other day or with another librarian. Everyone on the waiting list was accommodated, generally very quickly. But the structure felt more like something you had to pay for.

    This was in a small town, where the library director could explain easily the the elected officials how this worked and that it truly excluded no one.

  3. their drinks are often lukewarm – probably due to our litigious culture

    nobody in their right mind pays $4 for a lukewarm latte – sorry, no dice

  4. Starbuck’s problems are a little more complicated than the original posting. According to an NY Times article (sorry I don’t have the reference at hand), Starbucks in its eagerness to expand made some poor decisions in selecting locations. When they were still a rising star, they did a lot of solid research before selecting locations, but as the pressure to expand increased, they relaxed their standards and choose locations that were too close to other established locations or picked locations in areas that were expected to develop but didn’t due to the decline in the housing market.

    Nonetheless, I agree with some parts of StephenB’s post. Some patrons, customers, clients, consumers (whatever you want to call them) want to be treated well, want to talk to someone who is knowledgeable, want a satisfactory experience when they go to a library, a Starbucks, etc. (Some customers, on the hand, shop for the best price and don’t care about the experience.) Having worked in a large, medium-sized, and now a very small library, I have come to believe that small libraries can deliver a far better “experience” than larger libraries. The students where I work are amazed that I know their names and that I remember what they are interested in. In terms of personal satisfaction, does it get any better than that?

  5. As a library user and coffee drinker, I have no desire to have the staff know my name or interests. I want the best product at the best price with as little fuss as possible.

    As a librarian, I find the profession moving rapidly away from my values, presenting the experience as the product instead of information as the product.

    This post is anonymous because one of the many corporate habits my library has adopted is punishing dissenters.

  6. X – You say you want information to be the product. You should read more DBL posts on the user experience. Focusing on information as the product is why library use is way down. People can get their information anywhere – or anywhere convenient for them. If all you want is information why bother with a library? The library can offer a unique experience in obtaining information or leveraging quality of the experience. I think creating meaning experiences for information seekers and personal relationships with librarians is a critical library value. So I’m not sure what library values you seek to promote at your library.

  7. I agree with StevenB AND with anonymous x. I think the key here is the phrase “restore the exclusivity of the brand.” Last year OCLC’s “Perceptions of Libraries” survey found that people strongly associate libraries with books – and that association is often a very positive one. I was at ALA Annual this year, and, visiting the exhibits, I was struck by what was there – books, books, books. Users aren’t confused about what our brand is, and vendors certainly aren’t confused about what our brand is, but librarians, I think, really are. We know that the world of information is much larger than the books on our shelves (and, hey, I was an e resources librarian, so no one is more on board with that than I am), but what books and libraries represent physically for people is refuge – a world larger than the one we perceive in our town or city or campus. The experience of being in a library is, in part, an experience of taking refuge in that bigger place, and knowing there are people and institutions that will guard and keep it for you and others like you. Books – endless numbers of books that you can take and read, for free – represent that (and SO much more – the freedom to read and learn, the democratizing force of civic institutions in a commercial society, the idea of a public trust, freedom from censorship). We should embrace that brand and parlay that strong association our users have between books and libraries into the relationships we need to sustain our collections and programs.

    Like x, “I want the best product at the best price with as little fuss as possible.” Which I get at my little local branch library – those folks are efficient! (La Mesa branch, San Diego County PL) But one day I went in and had this HUGE fine and the gal said, “It’s because you don’t renew your videos! Renew your videos! I hate to see this happen to you because you’re one of my favorites.” And it meant so much to me that she said that, because I was new to the area and didn’t know anybody and was (ok, am) unemployed. It just meant a lot that she noticed me. And I still go there and our relationship is no different – I check stuff out, she checks it out to me – but my bond with my library is a lot stronger because of that one thing she said.

    Personal service is tricky – it takes some finesse. It takes people people, not information people, and sometimes libraries have a hard time valuing people.

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