Tucked in a Soho sidestreet opposite theatrical staple The Mousetrap, Starbucks’ new concept store is place for the coffee chain to experiment with a higher end, more personalised experience.
The London store aims to be you’d start a date or meet a friend, rather than sit all day designing on a MacBook Pro wearing oversized headphones. Its aesthetics are more in line with a high-end independent coffeeshop than the functional feel of most Starbucks – though there’s tech underpinning everything in the store from ordering to projected visuals that give the same impression of seamless efficiency as visiting the Apple Store down the road in Covent Garden.
And then there’s the product itself – where there’s a much wider range of coffees and food – plus alcohol for the first time in the UK (including a rather tasty pale ale from Hackney brewery Five Points).
For the customers, the most apparent difference from your average Starbucks is the absence of the queue. The company imagines that those just after a takeaway jolt will use a smartphone app to pre-order their brew then pop in to collect and depart in a jiffy – though whether the British public will eschew their natural tendency to queue remains to be seen. Those who want to ‘drink in’ get waiter-service by knowledgeable staff who take orders and dispense advice over which micro-brew (aka small-batch) coffee you should try.
At the concept store’s launch I caught up with Starbuck’s VP of Design for EMEA Ad De Hond – who describes the store as a reaction to a growing number of coffee aficionados.
“Decades ago people were just making Nescafe,” he says. “Now they know exactly what to order, how to customise it, how to personalise it and they know where they want to sit [to enjoy it]. This is what we want to bring to the next level.”
So instead of your usual flat white, you can order a Piccino – which is richer and comes in a glass.
Image: Ad De Hond (centre) with members of the shop's staff.
Starbucks is also trying to attract evening customers who might otherwise go to a pub - or would like to go out but don’t want to go to a pub.
“Not everybody wants to go to a bar,” says Ad. “Not everybody wants to drink alcohol. Say you just want to have a cappuccino whereas your girlfriend wants to have a wine – here you can come together.”
Considering the quality of coffee sold in your average pub – which usually means aging filter coffee and instant ‘cappucinos’ – Ad has a point here, even if many Londoners will find the idea of not having a drink on a night out rather alien.
Drinking alone is seen as more socially acceptable in a coffeeshop than in a bar – and Starbucks is trying to cater for this too, with a special focus on creating what Ad describes as a “safe space” to appeal to women.
Ad describes the design process for the store as ripping up the Starbucks store template and starting again.
"There were no rules – all the rules wentout the door." says Ad. "[We asked ourselves], what if we were to create an ideal Starbucks – what would it look like and what would be served.
"That was a tricky thing for us to design. So we started thinking about the senses: smells, sights, feel – all these things we took into our design brief."
The design of the space soften’s the extensive dark wood of most Starbucks branches with more lighter shades – and the projected visuals portray the natural world. Digital screens by the door offer menu choices – but the main visuals are what Ad describes as “moving wallpaper” to make visitors feel relaxed. Forests and landscapes are accompanied by shots of non-industrialised agriculture, as Starbucks is aiming to reflect its core product as something produced by real farmers rather than a corporation.
“This is about creating an atmosphere,” says Ad. “[Our main product] comes from farmers, so we show what they do and how beautiful that is. The art of making coffee, and cupping and sipping - all these things we want to show here.”
Being digital, the menus and visuals can be changed automatically to reflect what customers want at different times of the day – or merely what they can have, as the store doesn’t start selling alcohol until 4pm.
So will we see more stores like this around London or the rest of the country? Maybe, or it may just be certain elements that become part of mainstream Starbucks stores. Ad describes the concept store as a place to experiment and innovate. I’m just hoping they introduce the Piccino nationwide.