Competition Corporate America Microsoft Small Business Software Starbucks Technology

Are you paying attention to your competition?

Earlier this week, the long-awaited Firefox 3 web browser shipped.

Last Wednesday, a cake from their competitor – the Microsoft Internet Explorer team – arrived at the headquarters of the Firefox development team to congratulate them for releasing their new version.

Obviously, someone at Microsoft is paying attention to their competition.

Do you?

I don’t mean to suggest that you should mimic their every move, becoming the Burger King to their McDonald’s.

On the other hand, watching them and the rest of your market is a necessary effort. And, as noted above, it’s ok to have a little fun with them once in a while.

Not long ago, we talked about how independent coffee shops could keep an eye on so that they know how consumers feel about Starbucks AND their competition.

How do you keep an eye on your competition? I’d be interested to hear about it.

Competition ECommerce Internet marketing Marketing Positioning Small Business Starbucks

How to serve mail order coffee while wearing your e-commerce marketing hat

I ordered some coffee beans online the other day and received the box on Saturday. Or maybe Friday – dunno since I didn’t check the mail on Friday.

The box arrived in good condition and the beans were packed in their airtight bag with a nice spring-y colored tissue paper. So much nicer than those annoying statically charged packing peanuts that stick to everything.

Buddha dog
photo credit: SuperFantastic

Included in the box was a hand-written card from one of the owners of the coffee shop (no photo of the owner or the shop), and a business card (no photo). Nicely done, I thought, but what would make the purchase really memorable?

What would provoke me to tell a dozen friends about this package, and even to show it to them before tossing or reusing the packaging?

  • What can they do to make doing business with them unbelievable?
  • How can they truly make it an coffee shop experience – even by mail?
  • If Seth Godin ordered coffee beans from your shop – what would you have done differently, or what would you hope you would have done differently?

Here are a few ideas:

Tell me how fresh it is and why I should care: Include the roasted date on the package so I know that they put my coffee in the box on the same day it was roasted (or maybe the day before). When telling me the roasting date, remind me that coffee beans lose 25% of their flavor within 14 days – or whatever the number is – and note that store-bought coffee is often months old (and Starbucks is as well). Make it clear to me that their efforts to get me the freshest roast possible is so I and my friends and family have the best coffee we can buy – without spending 2 or 3 times what the grocery store charges.

Tell me how special it is: I know of one shop that includes a birth certificate with their Christmas-time Hawaiian Kona coffee package. A nice touch over the holidays, but it could easily be continued throughout the year. If it’s French Roast, tell me where the beans came from. Tell me where the farm is. If it’s Fair Trade coffee, make sure I know about it.

Show me what else I might like if I like French Roast: Next time I order coffee, I might be in an experimental mood. Or I might want something stronger, or different. Let me know what I might enjoy if I liked this one. Help me shop more wisely.

Show me what else I might do if I am “into coffee”: Perhaps I’m using bleached coffee filters. Maybe my water isn’t filtered. Maybe I toss the half-full bag in the fridge or in the freezer. Shouldn’t I get an owner’s manual for this bag of beans?

I mean, if I’m going to really enjoy them and get the same experience I would get if I was drinking my Joe in your shop, what would I do at home?

Help me find the things I’ll need if I really am a coffee geek, or want to be. After all, there is a reason why the coffee is so good at your shop – shouldn’t you help me make my coffee just as good at home with your beans?

Help me reorder: Until I establish a purchase history, this coffee place has to make a guess about how long it’ll take me to use this bag of beans. I’m guessing they can tell me to the cup how many cups of espresso I’ll get (give or take a couple) from a bag of beans ( I have no idea ).

If they guess that two people are drinking java in my house (an accurate guess) each day, then they’ll need to follow up in a certain number of days so that I never run out of their coffee. How many days should they wait before following up?

Roughly speaking, that’s (cups per bag) divided by (cups per day) minus a few days for shipping so that they have time to get me another bag before I run out and establish motivation to buy someone else’s coffee at the local grocery or coffee shop.

Rhode Island Cinnamon Latte
photo credit: Chris Owens

Adding to that reorder thing – help me get it automatically: If I like their coffee, give me a code or a special URL or phone number or an order form or email address or *something* to make it drop dead simple to order another bag, and include an option to start having them send me a bag so that fresh beans or ground coffee automatically arrive every X days or weeks.

Help me tell a friend about this great coffee and the package and so on: Include a card, something with a bonus-for-a-friend URL, some other doohickey, or a 1 pot sample bag of ground coffee (just in case they don’t have a grinder) or something to give to a friend. If I’m a coffee geek, chances are that I know other coffee geeks – the same kind of people who appreciate the same kinds of things.

Remind me to reorder: Follow up with me in a week or two and make sure the beans are as good as I expected. Remind me how I can get them again and make it as easy as possible. Don’t make me work to get another bag.

Make me feel like I’m part of your gang and do it in a way that’s viral: Include a cleverly logo’d coffee cup in the package for their first order. Remember, it isn’t about getting the order, it’s about gaining a new client. You want people to ask your client about that cup they’re using, so be sure it’s cool enough that they can’t help but use it. Make sure they know that the first order ships free if they mention they saw the cup.

Of course, this discussion could easily be modified for imported bamboo plants, boudin, motivational CDs, workout DVDs, t-shirts, barbeque sauce, gourmet chocolates or anything you are selling online and over the phone.

For more ideas and motivation for your mail order business, order a CD from and see how they make every aspect of the purchase interesting and fun, even the order confirmation emails.

Competition Corporate America Entrepreneurs Management Restaurants Retail Small Business Social Media Starbucks Strategy – A gift to every independent coffee shop and cafe owner

Regular readers of this blog have probably figured out that I’m not all that impressed with Starbucks, especially when compared to local coffee shops that get it (much less the ones that don’t burn their beans). This time, I actually have a kind word for the corporate coffee monolith.

Cup of coffee [ without edition ] photo credit: Al- Fassam [ Online! 😀 ]

The news has been full of talking heads twittering and blogging about the new Starbucks website that encourages their customers to provide ideas, feedback etc.

It’s called, and is run on‘s CRM/sales platform.

If you Google around, you’ll find all sorts of bile about the stupidity of this decision, how it’s “stale”, or it’s a ploy, and so on.

While I think Starbucks has done a lot of dumb things, I think it’s one of the few smart things the coffee giant has done lately.

Encouraging your customers to provide you with ideas on how you can improve your business – anonymously (rather important).

Not only does Starbucks get some value from it by virtue of not being so close to their business that they can’t see the forest for the trees, but it great for their customers as well.

Why? Because the non-jaded among us get to feel some ownership of Starbucks via their ideas and suggestions.

You can do the very same thing tomorrow via a WordPress (or whatever) blog. For almost nothing, almost instantly. In an hour, I can have a new domain name, web hosting, a copy of WordPress with a nice looking theme in production.

What are you waiting for? Or don’t you have an hour today? Why is that?

I promised you a tip, didn’t I?

If you own a retail store, a coffee shop, a cafe, a donut shop/bakery, or any business that is even similar to Starbucks – shouldn’t you be monitoring the Starbucks idea list for ideas to implement in your shop? Likewise, shouldn’t you be watching the feedback that people give to the MyStarbucksIdeas that others suggest?

There’s just nothing like getting a free gift basket of low-hanging fruit from your biggest competitor:)

Other posts on this topic:

Starbucks “Gets” Social Marketing
Starbucks feedback is good idea
Starbucks picking up buzz from crowdsourcing
Starbucks is on the right idea

Marketing Public Relations Small Business Starbucks

Marketing opportunities: As perishable as lettuce.

roasted_coffee_beans.jpgI’ve always admired how Stew Leonard promoted and ran his grocery store, but this morning, I’m given another reason to give him the nod. He is clearly paying attention.

Starbucks is going to be re-training their baristas next week. You know, teaching them how to do little things like how to make coffee, a skill they’ve apparently not needed with all the automated equipment they use these days. Locally owned coffee shops have to be loving this.

To make this training happen, Starbucks is closing their stores for 3 hours in the middle of the business day.

Ever the opportunist, Stew Leonard’s issued a press release to not only announce that they will give away free fresh-roasted coffee during Starbucks’ lights-out period, but it also brilliantly educates the client about how serious Stew Leonard is about coffee. The release discusses the importance of coffee freshness, how fragile the freshness really is, how many beans they roast each day, how many varieties they roast, and so on.

The release strikes right at the heart of the coffee aficionado (or snob, whatever) who might think that “grocery store coffee sucks”, by showing how serious they are about it. After reading the story, it’s difficult for the coffee lover to avoid thinking that Stew’s takes their coffee seriously.

Here’s an excerpt from the press release:

NORWALK, Conn., Feb. 19 /PRNewswire/ — Starbucks recently publicized that all 7,100 company-owned stores will close between 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. local time on February 26 to retrain more than 135,000 employees in an effort to create “a renewed focus on espresso standards.”

Stew Leonard’s, which roasts its 20 varieties of coffee fresh in-house and brews more than 2,000 pounds of beans every day, today announced that during those same hours on February 26th, all four of its store locations will offer free cups of coffee, cappuccino or espresso.

“We know what it’s like when you need your java jolt, so while Starbucks is turning customers away, we’ll be welcoming them with open arms and a free cup,” said Stew Leonard, Jr. “We actually got this idea from Mike Perry, owner of Coffee Klatch Roasting in southern California, who was visiting our stores the other day. His coffee shops have been recognized as serving the ‘Best Espresso in the World’ at the 2007 World Barista Championship in Tokyo, Japan.”

Note the language used throughout the release. Not only does Stew Leonard’s use the release to educate people about coffee, but they use common knowledge to do so, saying “coffee is as perishable as lettuce”. They also use the right lingo about coffee and make the discussion emotional, “we know what it’s like”, etc.

How many opportunities like this are presented to you each year? How many do you take advantage of? As I’ve suggested before, use the news in your marketing. You don’t have to be in the coffee business to take advantage of this opportunity, although you do just about have to be nuts not to use this opportunity if you ARE in the coffee business.

Competition Corporate America Creativity Marketing Starbucks

A free extra shot for every neighborhood coffee shop in the U.S.

A free extra shot at Starbucks’ expense, that is.

This week and last, the news feeds and blogs are abuzz (sorry…) with stories about the defective Chinese-made mugs that Starbucks (SBUX) is selling in their stores (I wonder if the ones I saw in the Staples gift packs last Monday are on the list…)

Eventually, the Feds (via the Consumer Product Safety Commission) got involved and a recall resulted.

The problem: when hot coffee is put into the mugs, the handles detach. Result: hot coffee + gravity = something not normally suited for 140-180 degree F coffee might get SingeBucked. Ouch.

Oddly enough, Reuters called it a “minor burn hazard”, but from where I sit (literally), a cup full of 140 degree coffee suddenly dropped in my lap isn’t exactly a MINOR issue. That’s enough to make Austin Powers lose his MoJo(e).

The marketing opportunities for those who compete with Starbucks are limitless.

For example, I haven’t yet seen a marketing piece that notes that Starbucks wasn’t satisfied with burning their beans, now they sell mugs that let you burn YOURS as well.

“New gift packs from Starbucks include the defective Chinese mugs and asbestos-lined boxers.”

Quality control would be a good topic.

“We steam the milk, they steam your clothes.”

You get the idea. The independent coffee shop could have as much fun with that as they like. I haven’t heard Leno in a while, but I suspect he might give you some ideas as well – unless the writers’ strike decaffeinates the jokes.

Competition Customer service Employees Management Marketing Montana Retail Starbucks

Business owners can’t get a hit unless they swing the bat.

A few weeks ago, I decided to celebrate winning a Glazer-Kennedy (GKIC) contest by having a contest of my own.

To enter, you needed to send me the best testimonial you have. It could be about you, about me, or anyone else.

The best testimonial would do what we talk about here when discussing what makes a great testimonial. It might address a sales objection, such as price, unfamiliarity with the vendor/product, common reasons not to buy, etc. It would mention a specific vendor, or product. It would be specific about results.

Joel’s testimonial did all those things.

Competition Corporate America Employees Entrepreneurs Marketing Starbucks Strategy Wal-Mart

Competing with Walmart – this guy gets it.

Last week, a story in the Flathead Beacon (a weekly print/internet paper that carries my business column) discussed a Whitefish MT store called Main Street Art and Crafts Supplies.

Main Street offers arts and crafts, but takes things to the next level, by offering classes in cake decorating, stained glass, etc.

One quote leaped out from the Beacon story, telling me that owner Rick Latta gets it:

â??I canâ??t compete with Wal-Mart prices, but Wal-Mart doesnâ??t walk customers through projects, give them ideas, teach them tricks or have a studio with tools where people can come and work and ask questions,â? he said.

This is where you make a difference by hiring the right people (experienced in those crafts), paying them a little more so they don’t have to work at Wal-Mart, and more importantly, doing what Wal-Mart simply won’t do.

It doesn’t matter if your small business competes with Borders, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Lowe’s, Home Depot, Target, Best Buy, Circuit City or Starbucks: They won’t do the little things like Rick is doing. Will you?

Those stores will focus on price, above all else. You have to change the rules of the game, as Rick has.

Corporate America Entrepreneurs Marketing Retail Starbucks The Slight Edge

Cross-branding. Good enough for Starbucks and Hershey. How ’bout you?

americonedream.jpgA recent article in the Seattle Business Journal discusses a new deal between Starbucks and Hershey that will result in an upscale chocolate product.

Once again, we see cross-branding between two industry giants.

What could they possibly gain – and what can the small business owner learn from it?

Book Reviews Competition Starbucks The Slight Edge

Dangerous boys vs play dates

As some of you know, I am the Scoutmaster for a Boy Scout troop here in Columbia Falls. Others of you know that I used to be on the Montana board for Scouts, but that’s a story for another day. A friend referred me to this book, and noted that it speaks of many of the things we 30-40-50 somethings did as kids that it seems more and more kids aren’t exposed to these days.

In a world of play dates and kids who don’t even know what stitches are, our Scouts still go out in the woods on 100 mile treks into the Bob Marshall Wilderness, float for a week in a canoe following Lewis and Clark’s trek down the Missouri River and find excitement in similar adventures. A group of Scouts from California are planning to climb Mount Kilimanjaro during the summer of 2008 and have invited our troop along for the adventure. How many kids get a chance to do stuff like that?

This book can give your kid a taste of the harsh, rough, adventurous, awesome times we had as boys in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Let em at it, a couple of stitches never really hurt anyone. You turned out fine, didn’t you?

What does this have to do with business? Everything.

Think about how homogenized business has become, generally speaking. If you’re a franchise, that’s exactly what you want, because part of the attraction of a franchise is that you can depend on the same experience in Pottawatomie as you can in Anchorage or Lafayette Louisiana.

If you aren’t a franchise, it’s a great thing to be up against – someone else’s homogenization.

Those boring franchises and big box stores that you’re up against are just like a play date. Not even comparable to a trip to the Bob Marshall Wilderness or a week on the Missouri River. Your big weapon against the big boxes and franchises is differentiation – something most of them arent even allowed to try.

Corporate America Marketing Starbucks

How are your beans ground?

A couple of months ago (yeah, I know, Im behind), there was a mass of hand-wringing in the press about a corporate memo Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz wrote, saying he is worried about the experience that people have at Starbucks these days.

He should be. Fortunately for them, he figured it out. He mentioned the loss of the “Starbucks experience” by no longer grinding beans in front of the customer (using recently roasted ground coffee instead), having baristas who can no longer remember their client’s typical order and having automated machines brew the espresso.

The Wall Streer Journal jumped on the memo, as did Starbucks’ critics. Read on, then we’ll go a little further: (Wall Street Journal online – really long URL)

One quote:

The criticisms pinpoint Starbucks’ biggest challenge. Mr. Schultz, the company’s resident visionary, wants Starbucks to become one of the world’s most recognized brands, with 40,000 locations around the globe, or more than triple its current count of about 13,000. But to do that, Starbucks must improve its efficiencies and make other changes that threaten to erode the virtues that made it so successful — which in turn could jeopardize its ability to charge premium prices.

Above, the WSJ says SB “must improve its efficiencies”.

Yeah, sure they do. But what in the heck does that have to do with using pre-ground beans? Or using automated espresso machines? The efficiencies that are needed to increase their size have NOTHING to do with internal store operations relating to the making of an individual cup of coffee while providing the “theatre” Howard refers to. They relate to corporate efficiency. Corporate office improvements, purchasing and shipping improvements, hiring changes and similar.

But not the java, mon.

The beancounter who put the automated machines in and started having pre-ground beans clearly doesn’t understand how these shops work, or why people frequent them and has no business making decisions that affect the customer experience at SB – or any other business. Otherwise, he or she may be a fine accountant.

Trading Juan Valdez and his burro for a suit in a helicopter or a $45k pickup doesn’t make the coffee or the experience better.

And you…. how are your beans ground?

Have you replaced the expert home salespeople who do model tours on the golf cart? That cute little college coed who knows nothing about your homes ISN’T helping the experience, isn’t getting the prospects any closer to a sale, can’t answer detailed questions about the home and if you are lucky, isn’t making the situation worse, even if she is awfully cute and bubbly.

Do the people at the counter in your auto repair bays still know the dirt on your cars? They should.

Are you serving the equivalent of “pre-ground coffee” in your industry?