Starbucks: It's a status thing

Rob Walker

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

Stacey Vanek-Smith: Starbucks reported its first quarterly loss ever yesterday. The coffee giant lost more than $6.5 million. That news comes just weeks after Starbucks announced plans to shut down 600 coffee shops in the U.S.

The company blamed high fuel costs and less foot traffic in its stores. Some critics say that lack of foot-traffic is Starbucks' own fault. Because the company expanded too fast and the stores started cannibalizing their own customers.

Take this clip from the movie Best in Show:

Parker Posey: We met at Starbucks. Not the same Starbucks -- we saw each other at different Starbucks across the street.

Michael Hitchcock: I remember what I was drinking when I met you -- it was a grande espresso.

Posey: That's right, I thought that was really sexy.

And it seems Starbucks' recent troubles have done something kind of sexy to its brand appeal. So says commentator Rob Walker.


Rob Walker: Some say Americans just won't get together and organize to support a community cause. It isn't so. Folks are banding together in big cities and small towns to make a difference. No, they aren't beautifying a park, or commissioning public artworks. They're trying to convince a multinational corporation not to close up one of its thousands of locations. They're fighting to Save Our Starbucks.

Reports about this grassroots movement started popping up when the company revealed which of the 600 Starbucks outlets - out of more than 11,000 in the U.S. -- it intends to shutter. From Newark to Seattle, from Kingsley, Texas to Blaine, Minnesota, people are writing letters, starting petitions in the streets and, at, yes, saveourstarbucks.com, they're also throwing around words like "heartbroken" and "devastated."

Some call Starbucks a place to meet and talk, but others make a different point. It's not just our inalienable right to $4 lattes, it's that Starbucks is an important symbol of economic progress, even a form of validation for a neighborhood. To close one would apparently scare off development, and wound the polis. As one commentator bluntly put it: "It's a status thing."

What a remarkable turnabout this is for the Starbucks brand, which has been troubled for a while now, if the stock price is any guide. And wasn't it just yesterday that the Onion ran a satirical item about a Starbucks opening inside another Starbucks? And that vandalous activists considered it a symbol of global capitalism run amok?

Well now apparently, it's evolved into a symbol of community pride and economic vitality. Maybe this says something promising about Starbucks' future. But I wonder what it says about the future of American community.

Can you imagine a similarly widespread Save Our Library campaign, for instance? Or have we reached the point that the most important symbols of community strength are, in fact, publicly traded megacorporations? I guess we'll have to let the market sort that one out.

Vanek-Smith: Rob Walker writes the Consumed column for The New York Times Magazine. His latest book is "Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are."

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