Starbucks’ “Race Together” campaign collapsed in a slapstick tangle of arms and legs about 10 feet from the starting line. With the realization that no one was going to reach the finish line — never mind that no one had defined where the finish line was, or even if there was one — the company picked itself up, dusted itself off, proclaimed “I meant to do that” and canceled the rest of the race.
That decision brought an end to one “conversation” (to use an odious term du jour), not about race relations in 21st century American life but about Starbucks’ corporate management, along the lines of “what were they thinking? Were they thinking?” But it did provide an opportunity to have another conversation, about what we expect, or want, from the companies we do business with.
If we’re honest about it, what we want and expect most is value. That can be defined as price, and many people consider that the prime, maybe only, criterion. But value varies according to the buyer and what’s being bought. Quality of the good or service matters. So does convenience. A friendly atmosphere, or at least the absence of unpleasantness such as being pestered for one’s philosophies and attitudes about the Major Issues of the Day when you just want a cup of coffee to go.
How about community involvement and citizenship, political positions, compliance with laws and regulations, a perception that the company is decent to its employees, that the people who run it are nice?
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OK, fine, sure, whatever, that’s important too. Or to some people it is. To some it matters not at all and they are willing to buy anything that fell off the back of a truck. To others it matters a little, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of a value-loaded transaction. Have you noticed the ads in local magazines promoting shopping in Portland with the prominent come-on that Oregon has no sales tax? Gee, why would they do that when they know Washington residents would never buy something in a no-sales-tax state without paying the appropriate use tax here?
And to some it matters a great deal. The cooperative movement — which in this region encompasses financial institutions such as BECU, retailers such as REI and health-care concerns such as Group Health — holds considerable appeal to many for its community and customer orientation. That those cooperatives often deliver financial value as well as well is just icing on a civic-minded venture.
For still others, it’s a matter of how great the irritation or how deep the offense to the customers’ own beliefs is. Retailers from Amazon to Walmart have annoyed customers for many, varied reasons, and some consumers won’t deal with them for those reasons, not that such abstinence makes much of a dent in overall sales.
Similarly, the tech industry has a reputation for reliance on offshore manufacturing plants with occasionally dubious working conditions, and for favoring immigration policies that allow them to bring in younger, cheaper labor to the detriment of older, more expensive American employees, not that its reputation has done much to dampen demand for smartphones, wearables or whatever the latest digital gizmo is.
Had Starbucks persisted in the Race Together campaign at the store level, it likely wouldn’t have made much of a difference in sales. If reality and experience are any guides, the conversations would have trailed off through disinterest on the part of harried barista and rushed customer alike, or else would have provided an opportunity for bonding and shared eye-rolling on the theme of “can you believe what the suits at HQ came up with this time?”
While Starbucks is promising, or threatening, to continue discussing the issue of race, future endeavors are likely to be carried out at the corporate level, where they can be safely ignored by baristas, who are trying to keep customers served and the company operating, and by the customers, who like millions of Americans are going about the business of resolving differences without hectoring lectures on how to accomplish that.
Count this incident as one more entry in Howard Schultz’s complicated legacy. As a businessman, Schultz is already in the pantheon of legends, not just for building a big, profitable company but for creating an entire retailing category (yes, there were coffeehouses and places that sold coffee, but not on the scale or in the style of Starbucks). As a sports-team owner, not so good.
As a community and civic-minded leader, he’s had some interesting and laudable ventures, in college education for employees and for veterans. As a self-styled “thought leader” (to use another awful term), this was a mess. But give him credit for recognizing quickly what a mess he’d created and backing off, much to the relief of customers who can get their coffee without a side order of political haranguing — which is what they want and expect from the company.
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.