NEAL CONAN, host:
We have a love-hate relationship with Starbucks. For some, a shiny new shop at the neighborhood stands as a sign that the local economy is on the upswing, that life is better. Of course, there are also those who hate Starbucks as a pretentious, over-priced, not-all-that latte-brewing bully that stomped out local coffee houses, and some people never knew how much they would miss their Starbucks until it looked like they might lose it. After the company announced plans to shut down 600 under-performing stores around the country, mocha drinkers from New Jersey to New Mexico responded with cries of Save Our Starbucks. So tell us, what does Starbucks mean to you and to your neighborhood, 800-989-8255 is the phone number. The email address is email@example.com, and you can join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. And joining us now from the studios at WFMT in Chicago is Janet Adamy, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and thanks very much for being with us today.
Ms. JANET ADAMY (Reporter, Wall Street Journal): My pleasure.
CONAN: And I know that you've gone out to report on this. It's almost (unintelligible) sort of situation. People see Starbucks very differently, depending on where they stand.
Ms. ADAMY: They do. I think what's interesting about this is that when Home Depot or the Gap chooses to close down a store, you know, you don't really hear an outcry. But with Starbucks, there's a lot more passion around the issue, and that's for a couple of reasons. Starbucks, when they first expanded beyond Seattle in the early - or rather the late 80s, Howard Schultz, the CEO of the company, set out to make it a third place where people would gather between their homes and their offices. There's so much more of personal attachment there. Starbucks also has a lot higher visitor frequency than most retailers. The average visits per regular customers are between 15 times and 18 times a month.
CONAN: And so, where are some of these stores that you reported on that they're planning to go - shut down.
Ms. ADAMY: They're really spread throughout the country, everywhere from big cities like New York, and Chicago, and Los Angeles, to smaller towns such as Bloomfield, New Mexico. And we're not seeing much of a pattern in the closings other than the fact that most of them had been opened within the past two and a half years.
CONAN: And these are different - I would assume, the reactions are different. If it's, well, in a place where there's 15 Starbucks within walking distance, or it's a place that only has one Starbucks in town.
Ms. ADAMY: Yeah, that's right. I think we're seeing the strongest reactions from the smaller towns that are losing, perhaps, their only Starbucks. I've heard from some customers who say there isn't another Starbucks for 10 or 15 miles away. At the same time, we've also heard from customers in New York City where I think many people feel like there's a Starbucks every other block who felt an attachment to that particular Starbucks or were really excited because it was going to be opening in a building where their office was moving to.
CONAN: And are some states being hit harder than others?
Ms. ADAMY: On a percentage basis, yeah. The states that are losing the highest number of locations are California, Florida, and Texas in that order. But on a percentage basis, Mississippi is actually going to lose about 41 percent of their company-owned Starbucks. That includes Starbucks that are run by licensees. North Dakota, Minnesota, and Nebraska are also going to lose somewhere in the 30 percent range of their Starbucks.
CONAN: Now we have a question here from our audience member at the Newseum.
JOY (Audience): Hi, I'm Joy Smith (ph), Neal. And all I want to say is don't take my Starbucks away.
CONAN: Where is it?
JOY: I live in very rural Iowa, and so I have to drive an hour and a half to the nearest Starbucks. But the reason it's important to me it that it really represents consistency. You can go places and coffee is very different and go to Starbucks and know that you're going to get the latte that tastes the same every time.
CONAN: And so, you definitely want your - as far as you know is it going to close?
JOY: I haven't heard. But being in Iowa, you know, our population probably wouldn't serve what...
CONAN: Might not justify the...
JOY: Mm hmm.
CONAN: OK. Well, let's hope it stays open and I think that Janet Adamy, that's a sentiment you've heard often.
Ms. ADAMY: Yeah. I think one of the things that these states are losing - that are losing the higher percentage of their locations, they are for the most part, they are less densely populated. I mean, as far as the sentiment, that's very much echoes what we are hearing from a lot of consumers. I think another reason why people feel strongly about this is that, you know, not only do they like to get the drinks and sit inside the Starbucks. But just the idea of having a Starbucks in your town is a sign that you've arrived.
CONAN: And similarly, not being Starbucks worthy is - well, it's pretty damning.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Joining us now from his office in Saint Paul, Minnesota is Paul Konrardy. He's the founder of saveourstarbucks.com and Paul, thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. PAUL KONRARDY (Founder, Saveourstarbucks.com): Happy to be here.
CONAN: And I assume you started this in response to the prospect of your Starbucks closing down?
Mr. KONRARDY: Yeah. I have a Starbucks that's literally across the parking lot from where I live, and I use that as my extended office. And I was very concerned that that would be closing. So, I heard about the closings and went ahead and thought, well I'm sure there's going to be a lot of people with that same concern around the country with 600 units closing. So, I built a website with a product that I have that allows people to build websites together and thought, there'd be a lot of people that could build this together and get their voices out on the web, together.
CONAN: And how many people are using this? How many people are stopping by?
Mr. KONRARDY: Well, so far, I re-launched the site with some more collaborative features. Just literally about 40 hours ago and since then, we've had dozens of people sign up and participate and there's adding petitions - links to petitions, online petitions, and it's really amazing that in just those 40 hours we've had over 3,000 views.
CONAN: Three thousand.
Mr. KONRARDY: Just - yeah.
CONAN: And do you think that the petitions - where are they going? To Seattle?
Mr. KONRARDY: Well, it looks like the majority of them are attempting to get that voice to Seattle. I'm not sure exactly because I don't know their particular online petition provider. But I think that's the intended recipient.
CONAN: And Janet Adamy, is there any prospect that the Starbucks headquarters in Seattle is going to be listening and saying, well - is it going to be like one of those campaigns to save the, you know, TV shows? We'll have "Jericho" on another year if enough of you send in complaints?
Ms. ADAMY: It's a good question, Neal. So far, the company hasn't publicly given any indication that they're going to reconsider closing these locations. It would be very hard to believe that you'd see a large scale reversal on this decision because it is going to be such an important part of helping get the company back on track. They've been struggling with their sales. At the same time, you know, it remains to be seen how they would react at stores where there is a really strong ground swell. With Starbucks is that - is they have this history of two-way communication with their customers. So, it sounds like they're not completely shutting their ears.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Let's go to line five and Frances (ph) - Frances is with us from Greenville in Michigan.
FRANCES (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Hi. You're on the air.
FRANCES: Yeah. I was - I just came back from Starbucks. It's a place where my friends and I meet, and I sometimes go alone to do some paperwork and when they first came here to Greenville about two years ago, I wrote to the company. And I just thanked them for coming here. And now, they're leaving, and I called - I heard that they're going to be leaving, and they don't have a date. And I called the company and I complained about it, and it's amazing to me that so many people are doing this around the country. I have no idea, but the things that I love about Starbucks is - and I heard somebody mention the consisting quality and variety of choices, the atmosphere. I love the music and the training of the personnel is so professional. I'm going to miss it terribly. The closest one is 35 miles away. I can't believe it.
CONAN: Thirty-five miles away.
CONAN: It's going to cut-down on - it's going to cost a lot of gas as well as that four dollar cup of coffee.
FRANCES: That's the thing. That's right. And I feel terrible about it. All my friends do.
CONAN: And well, Paul Konrardy, do you think she should visit your website?
Mr. KONRARDY: Oh absolutely, saveourstarbucks.com.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Frances.
FRANCES: Thank you.
CONAN: Good luck to you. Let's see if we can get line two up. Line two is Kevin, and Kevin's with us from Seaside in Florida.
KEVIN (Caller): Yeah, hi. I was calling because - well actually, I used to work for Starbucks, and I'm always been a fan of Starbucks. And we're on a road called 30-A in Florida, and we have two Starbucks within about nine miles of each other closing, and it actually - it's kind of interesting because there's a locally owned coffee shop, that competes directly with Starbucks that might look to actually benefit from this because it's a coffee shop called Alma (ph) Vida, and it's a wonderful place and it's got all the same kind of morals and even better so about you know, fair trade coffee and how they treat their employees. And I don't know, for us, it might be actually kind of exciting for - to see what they can do for our community, but it is sad to see our Starbucks go.
CONAN: And Janet Adamy, that was a complaint that a lot of people had about Starbucks was that they would be crushing the local coffee shops like the one Kevin is talking about in Seaside, Florida. Is this a chance for local companies to get back up as Mom and Pop operations.
Ms. ADAMY: Well, I think that there are some misconceptions about that. Our newspaper has done reporting over the years that shows that Starbucks actually, in a lot of ways helped create a market for our local coffee shops. So, I think that it's not necessarily the case that now the competition is going to be lifted, and we're going to see the independents shine because the fact of the matter is they had in a lot of ways been helped by all the awareness that Starbucks created for mochas and lattes and cappuccinos. At the same time, we're also seeing some larger mainstream food service companies like McDonald's getting into coffee. So, the market is continuing to see a lot of competition.
CONAN: Yeah. McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts and all of those other companies now offering the kinds of espresso drinks that I guess Starbucks really did make popular across the country.
Ms. ADAMY: That's right.
CONAN: Yeah. We're talking about the demise of 600 Starbucks shops around the country and campaigns to Save Our Starbucks. And you're listening to Talk of The Nation coming to you from NPR News. And Kevin, I meant to say, thank you for the phone call before I did that. Appreciate the time. We're talking - let me reintroduce our guests, with Janet Adamy, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal with us from the studios of WFMT in Chicago, and Paul Konrardy who's the founder of saveourstarbucks.com. Let's go to line three. Line three is Erica. Erica with us from Phoenix, Arizona.
ERICA (Caller): Hi. I wanted to say, I actually - there's two sides of this for me. I actually spend an average of 2,000 dollars a year...
ERICA: On my vente(ph) and muffin every morning on my way to work. And I had to ween myself off of it for a while. When I heard that they were going to close Starbucks, you know, just a general headline, I rushed to my local Starbucks. And I hadn't been there for months. But, the good news is that in Arizona, because we are sprawling. We're only experiencing one closure out in Eloy, so it's not going to affect any of Phoenix or any of those suburbs.
CONAN: Erica, have you considered a twelve-step program?
(Soundbite of laughter)
ERICA: The problem is that I find that I got other people hooked on it, and then they asked me to meet them there.
CONAN: So you're not just a user. You're an enabler.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: And I guess - I guess Janet Adamy, you know, fun aside - that goes to your point. That Starbucks really brought it a lot of new coffee drinkers around the country.
Ms. ADAMY: Yeah. Exactly. And I think there are a lot of people like Erica out there that are - one of the main reasons why Starbucks is having to close these locations. What they've said is, as the economy slowed down, that's contributed to their softening in sales and particular in areas that have been hard hit by the subprime mortgage crisis like California and Florida. They said they've seen an impact from that.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Erica and good luck with your habit.
ERICA: Thank you.
CONAN: Appreciate it. And it goes to the question though Janet Adamy, if a company is not growing, some people say, it's dying, how much trouble is Starbucks in?
Ms. ADAMY: Well, they are still growing. They are - what they're doing is they're shifting more of their new store growth to overseas markets where they see more potential, and there's a lot less saturation. I think in terms of the prospects for the company overall going forward, they were a Wall Street darling throughout the late '90s in the beginning of this decade. Their stock appreciated considerably, and I think the fact that now, for the first time in their history, they're having a huge round of closings like this, doesn't raise some good questions about whether we need - be passed the peak of the Starbucks years.
CONAN: Thanks very much. Let's go now to line five. And line five is Curtis. Curtis with us from Jacksonville in Florida.
CURTIS (Caller): Yes. How you doing? My wife and I like your previous caller, we would go and drive 35 to 40 miles weekly to go and purchase products from Starbucks, and we prayed and talked to people about them opening one on our side of town in Jackson where we're just at north side near the airport. They finally did. Open up one on Duns Avenue (ph), and I'm there every morning around 5:30, as soon they open up. I know the people. They are beautiful people. Their personalities are great. Saturday and Sunday morning's my time. I call it to stop and smell the roses. I go up there by seven, sit up there for about two hours and where it's located at is right off of the major interstate at 95 that runs through Florida. I meet people from Canada, New York - everywhere. Just sitting up there having coffee. So, every time I hear about one is going to close, I get worried and go to biting my nails.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: I can understand if you're up at 5:30. Why you - you might want to go to a Starbucks first thing, too.
CURTIS: Well, it's not so much I need it for the booze, but I just love the atmosphere and the people there, their morals and their attitude and their work ethics, it fits my personality and that's my major reason why I support it on top of the great products there.
CONAN: Curtis, thanks very much for the call.
CURTIS: Thank you.
CONAN: Appreciate it. And let's see if we can get one more caller in. Let's go to line four. And line four is Kate. And Kate Withers in Bakersfield in California.
KATE (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.
CONAN: Sure. Go ahead, please.
KATE: I just want to say that I have been a fan of Starbucks since high school. I mean, my friends and I went there several times a week, and this is when there is only, you know, one Starbucks for every few towns and had been so excited to see Starbucks grow and grow and obviously when I moved to Bakersfield, was very excited that they have Starbucks here. I wasn't quite sure what to expect. But, I have found that Starbucks as grown more commercial and reached for bigger markets, I think that the product has suffered. I just - I think that the lattes aren't quite what they used to be and so that's been kind of disappointing for me because they focused their market a little bit and closed these stores down now. Take a little more time to spend on the training and getting their product back to what it used to be.
CONAN: Interesting point. We just have a few seconds, Janet Adamy. But they did close all these stores for a day, retraining - the old CEO is back. So, Starbucks is well aware of what Kate is talking about.
Ms. ADAMY: That's right, and they're doing more things. They're also replacing their espresso machines with the new machine that they say is better. They're introducing a new food line-up starting in the fall, and they've added some smoothie drinks. So they're trying to do a lot of other things to improve the operations as they close these stores.
CONAN: Kate, thanks very much for your time. Appreciate it.
KATE: You're welcome. Thanks.
CONAN: And we'd like to thank our guests. Paul Konrardy who's the founder of saveourstarbucks.com. He joined us by phone from Saint Paul, Minnesota. Thanks very much.
Mr. KONRARDY: Thanks for having us.
CONAN: And also, Janet Adamy of The Wall Street Journal with us from the studios of WFMT in Chicago. Thank you.
Ms. ADAMY: My pleasure, Neal.
CONAN: Tomorrow, the mystery writer who thanks to a stroke, couldn't read anymore. He'll join us to take your calls. This is Talk of The Nation from NPR News.
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