What Librarians Can Learn From Starbucks’ Fall
The announcement that Starbucks would close 600 stores and layoff approximately 1,200 employees has a fair number of analysts asking what happened. How is it the once infallible Starbucks, a company that seemed to have limitless growth, has run into serious trouble? According to John Quelch, a blogger for Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge, Starbucks simply couldn’t sustain its growth. But more importantly Starbucks was failing to sustain what made them so popular in the first place – the experience.Â Quelch eloquently sums up the problem in his blog post:
Starbucks is a mass brand attempting to command a premium price for an experience that is no longer special. Either you have to cut price (and that implies a commensurate cut in the cost structure) or you have to cut distribution to restore the exclusivity of the brand.
While it’s too early in the game to find many libraries, academic or otherwise, that currently deliver a unique user experience, it still makes sense to take away some valuable lessons from Starbucks current situation. We can use that knowlege to help us in establishing a more sustainable library user experience. You could point out one big difference between Starbucks and a library. The company has thousands of stores across several continents. The typical library may have a few branches, and isn’t likely to open many more. But that big difference aside, what we can learn is how to better manage the delivery of the user experience.
First, Starbucks grew too big to deliver its unique experience of treating customers personally and having them recognized by the baristas. Libraries need to develop a better public service experience, one that leverages personal recognition and specialization. If the reference desk is too busy for that let’s get those who want more attention into the hands of a librarian who has time to provide more personalized assistance. And let’s remember those folks and greet them every time we see them. As Quelch points out, once loyal Starbucks customers have migrated to newer, more specialized cafes. What we can learn from Starbucks is that people want a unique experience in which they are recognized and treated with a personal touch. Foget that and you lose the experience.
Second, try to identify a few core services and make sure they are delivered extremely well by caring library workers. According to Quelch Starbucks expanded its food and beverage menu to the point where the drinks got so complicated that it meant baristas spent more time making the drinks and less time interacting with customers. The lesson here is that libraries need to keep their services basic and to the point, so that librarians can spend more time creating relationships with the user community. That will provide far more meaning in the long run than an extensive menu of databases and technology options. As Starbucks is finding out, McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts can deliver a premium cup of coffee at a far cheaper price. If there’s no difference in the experience at those other places, why would anyone go to a Starbucks. Does that sound familiar to librarians? What kind of experience do your users get at your library or using your website to get to the databases? If getting information at your library is no different than using a search engine to pull information off Wikipedia or YouTube, why be surprised at the lack of interest from the bulk of your community.
Quelch finishes by pointing to Starbucks’ rapid expansion as its main source of trouble.Â In seeking profits it just grew too big too fast. But in doing so the chain sacrificed its brand and unique experience. No library will face this exact problem, but we should keep in mind Quelch’s point about the need for controlled growth at a steady pace. Whatever efforts we make to design a better library user experience we must remind ourselves that the best experiences are the ones that are the end product of a thoughtful design process.Â