In 2010, Starbucks
(NASDAQ:SBUX) began selling beer and wine at a single location in Seattle, the company's hometown. Currently, the coffee giant has 26 shops that sell booze after 4 p.m., but after an announcement from the company in late March, that number is about to skyrocket. Spokeswoman Lisa Passé said the sale of alcoholic beverages will expand to thousands of Starbucks locations within the next few years. "The concept is a natural progression for Starbucks as we seek to create a new occasion for customers to gather, relax, and connect with each other in the evenings," Passé told USA Today
But the progression didn't seem so "natural" to everyone. We had to wonder: Will anyone actually enjoy going to Starbucks for happy hour? Or is the company risking brand dilution?
We sent out some queries. After hearing back from friends, readers, and marketing experts, we decided that Starbucks may be onto something. Based purely on anecdotal evidence, here's our summary of the types of people we think will be jonesing for more than just joe at the coffee shop.
1. Entrepreneurs Who Use Starbucks as an Office or Conference Room
Walk into any Starbucks and you're likely to see at least a few people working away on laptops or holding interviews or full-on meetings. We spoke to a few of these people, and they were definitely in favor of being able to enjoy an alcoholic beverage while at Starbucks. When entrepreneur and author
Jess Loren recently went to a Starbucks in Illinois for a meeting, she was pleasantly surprised by the expanded menu offerings. As she told us, beer "tasted great during my meeting [while] going over tedious changes. I ordered a Stella and would do it again and again. Maybe even a glass of wine."
Likewise, Brian Gloede, the founder of Quarterback,
has used an alcohol-serving Starbucks for several meetings. "In the Starbucks atmosphere, it doesn't feel out of place to have a beer next to your laptop," he says. "They even made a point to carry some 'local' beers -- Anheuser-Busch InBev's
(NYSE:BUD) Goose Island acquisition [earns] them 'local' status in Chicago with 312 Urban Wheat Ale. While it won't become my neighborhood watering hole, I see it as a welcome place to sip a beer, just as you would a hot coffee."
2. Nondrinkers Who Socialize With Drinkers
Say you're having a meeting with a coworker: One of you wants coffee, one of you wants a glass of wine. Now you can get both at Starbucks. As Chelsea-Lyn Rudder, author of Ladylike Lessons: A Guide to Feminine Empowerment, Elegance, and Etiquette,
explains, "It will turn Starbucks into a great compromise meeting place in the evening for people who cannot or would not prefer to consume alcohol. The person who's done working for the day can have a wine or beer at 6 p.m., while the working grad student can get a coffee with colleagues before heading to an evening class."
3. Romantics Seeking a First-Date Venue
Many first dates take place in coffee shops (you know, the old faithful "Let's get coffee sometime" line). "Adding the option of alcohol after-hours will introduce another element to an already cozy environment," says Chris J. Loney, fashion stylist and editor of Style in a Nutshell
. "It won't be as intense as a bar or club scene, so you won't have to shout over people." Now that first date can get a little more intimate.
4. Book Lovers Who Like Wine and Comfy Club Chairs in Their 'Third Space'
Starbucks is often referred to as a "third place": It's not home and it's not work, but you should feel just as comfortable there (or so say Starbucks higher-ups). The addition of alcohol sales has the potential to make this third space feel even more welcoming. As Dave Wakeman, a principal at Wakeman Consulting Group
, tells us, "The locations that have a more homey and relaxed feel will have better results from this because those stores are more conducive to a relaxing glass of wine, a snack, and a book.
Starbucks executive leadership has shown enough of an innovative bent that it will be able and willing to adjust to the market as it rolls out this program. This means that we're likely to see this program take different forms in different cities."
...But Not True Wine Aficionados
"Coffee aroma is the one thing you don't want in the room when you're trying to taste wine," says wine expert and author
Becky Sue Epstein. "When I run wine seminars in people's homes, I insist they wait until after the tasting to start their coffee machines."
5. Parents (With or Without Kids in Tow
Some parents like to drink, but a bar isn't exactly an ideal place to take kids. Having drinks at Starbucks could allow parents a place to share a glass of wine without having to hire a babysitter, assuming Starbucks is local (an optional stop on a neighborhood walk) or there's a designated driver around, of course. Sonya Sigler, vice president of product strategy and consulting at Discovia
, told us that she's a regular Starbucks customer and that she would stop by Starbucks for a beer or wine after work. She added, "My other mom friends would do that, too."
Even without the kids, parents find the notion of a drink at Starbucks appealing. "Starbucks is one of the few places where I can get some alone time and I don't feel awkward hanging out or reading alone," says former teacher and stay-at-home mom Elizabeth Hubler. "Adding a glass of wine sounds awesome to me."
Let's not forget about twentysomethings (aka the millennials). Bloomberg Industries analyst Jennifer Bartashus told American Public Media's Marketplac
e that she felt the coffee-shop chain may be able to attract young people who've grown up in the store's overstuffed chairs while nibbling cookies.
Anneliese Curtis Place, bar and hospitality consultant and author of the blog The Queen of Night Life
, agrees. "I would go to Starbucks at night more often to meet up with friends if wine was an option," she says. "I'm already stopping in a few times a week. Place is no longer in her 20s but says "the girls she Starbucks with" are. "Why not cater to the customers they already have?" she adds. "This is what we want. Coffee shops outside the US serve up beer, wine, and even pot brownies alongside lattes or a cup of joe."
Young people may be fickle, though. As Jacob Shriar, a 26-year old growth manager at Officevibe,
tells us, "I think a lot of young people will look at it as an alternative to bars that they're used to and probably enjoy it for its novelty. I think once the novelty wears off, it won't be so popular."
The Bottom Line
Overall we found a positive response to Starbucks' expansion of alcohol sales, suggesting that consumers would be interested in having a drink or two there. The company obviously believes the expansion will work in its favor, just as the introduction of new food items
did last year.
At last month's annual shareholders meeting, CEO Howard Schultz said, "We are in the early stages of our growth and development. If we're a 20-chapter book, we are only in chapter four or five."
I wonder what chapter six will be. Perhaps late-night service? A full dining experience? Maybe Starbucks will open its own wineries and breweries.
Follow me on Twitter: @JoshWolonick and @Minyanville
No positions in stocks mentioned.