retail news in context, analysis with attitude

We continue to get email about assertions that Starbucks is suffering from diminution of its brand image - and store traffic - because of an announced program designed to hire 10,000 refugees globally over the next five years, which some have suggested supersedes its commitment to US veterans.

This is an assertion that strikes me as demonstrably and factually inaccurate.

MNB reader Ben Ball wrote:

You hit the nail on the head with that one.  It is one of the most frustrating parts of this entire broader debate. For those trying to write and enforce sensible laws in this arena it must be absolutely maddening. They keep talking about ILLEGAL immigration, while the press and the left keep talking about “immigrants and refugees”. It seems they conflate the two on purpose and for obvious ends. No matter how loudly anyone shouts “we are PRO- legal immigration!!!!”  it seems to disappear into a deafening din of “you are a bigot and anti-immigrant”.  This sword not only cuts both ways – it hurts too.

I agree with you - except where you blame the left and the media for conflating the two. That's neither fair nor accurate. There's been plenty of conflation to go around, from both sides of the aisle.

Another MNB reader wrote:

Kevin, regarding Starbucks and immigrants, vets, disabled, underprivileged, racial issues, Christmas rather than holidays, health insurance, minimum wage, college for baristas, fair trade, organics and some items not as controversial such as climate change; perhaps sales are down because most of the time people just want a cup of coffee. Perhaps Starbucks' competition, whether better coffee or not, has simply stayed on script.

In the Northwest, where I reside, there is an interesting and growing coffee chain called Dutch Brothers. I used to think they were "low brow" with more attention given to sugar and extra flavors than coffee. Their stores play loud music, the employees are more pep squad caricatures than enlightened hipsters and most locations are drive through stands. However, in my town, there are waiting lines to buy Dutch Brothers coffee. People I talk to rave about Dutch Brothers. Perhaps people just want to buy a cup of coffee and not have to think about all the problems in the world when doing so.

I have to chuckle a little bit at this. For one thing, I think it probably is fair to suggest that Starbucks always has tried to write a different script than other companies. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. But it never has been a company that only was interested in selling coffee.

I also chuckle at the suggestion that Starbucks' appeal is to enlightened hipsters; I'ma regular customer, and that probably is the last way anyone would describe me. ("Boyish and probably delusional middle-aged man" is probably more like it.) While I'm aware of Dutch Brothers' appeal, it is important to remember that Starbucks tends to have lines, too - in fact, it generally has been my observation that if you walk into any mall in America, the two stores that are most likely to be crowded are the Apple Store and Starbucks.

Finally, where I come from, the notion that a company, even with all the pressures that come from being publicly traded and seeking consistent profitability, continue to try to provide a good wage, reasonable health care benefits, the ability for employees to get a college education, source product in a sustainable way, hire disabled people, veterans and refugees, and even try to be inclusive of non-Christian and transexual customers while trying to address divisive social issues such as race ... well, I'd think that company is pretty extraordinary. Even when it makes missteps and miscalculations. The vast majority of these initiatives have little to do with politics.

It Starbucks a perfect company? No. But I do think it tries to write its own script, and do the right thing. In some cases, it ends up doing the left thing, and it will have to live with those repercussions.

Finally, the following email from MNB reader John Rand, who always provides insights that make me feel smarter:

This debate which has been slowly unfolding on your website, and which is so clearly reflective of the larger issues under discussion in our country these days, seems to me to be so telling in so many ways.

I personally do not think it matters one bit to Mr. Shultz if his stand on the issue of hiring refugees costs some business. I also do not think he much cared whether his stand on hiring veterans cost him much business either.

And in neither case do I hold up a frame of reference of my own and approve or disapprove of Starbucks as a result. It’s basically outside my areas of passionate concern.  The whole point of debate and argument over public issues  is everyone gets to make that choice for themselves.

We used to do that a little more privately, perhaps, a little more politely perhaps, but even that is largely an exaggeration of the true reality. I remember a little farther back than most people (even you, Kevin, youngster that you are!) and I remember boycotts on grapes that were divisive. I remember a time when supporting veterans was more of a risky position than supporting migrant farm workers. I remember when people were killed for protesting, when dogs and fire hoses were loosed on American citizens for a variety of reasons, when ordinary people were murdered for stating their political beliefs and more extraordinary people earned the word “assassination” for the same thing. And  I had older relatives who went to jail for supporting unions, and were shunned by other relatives who disagreed, creating family feuds that literally lasted for generations.

We are not always a polite and well-behaved society. That really is not news. People who wring their hands over the current lack of civility because they think it is a departure from prior norms are both right and wrong – we have always had passionate and often destructive moments of public disagreement.

What concerns me is how long it might take to get back to the essential genius of America – which is, ultimately, that nobody wins. In the end, we have always, slowly and sloppily and often painfully, found our way to the middle – to compromise and acceptance of differences, to some sort of recognition that you give a little to get a little, that not every issue is, in the end, worth fighting to the death over. We are not all the same, no one ever wins all the time, and no one ever loses all the time either. In the long run we create a sort of average of what offends the fewest number of people and what doesn’t matter all that much gets recognized as not very important, so we can really work on the big things.

So drink coffee wherever you like. And you can fill it up with milk or cream or sugar or frothy air in whatever proportions you like, or you can drink it black and bitter and no one cares enough to make you do it any other way or in any other place. Take a deep breath. Civilization is not dependent on where you get coffee, or on where someone you will probably never meet in some town you will never visit uses a certain bathroom, or makes family choices you would never make, or has hobbies that you would never  want to experience.

But it does matter if there are no jobs for people who want to work. It does matter if there is no food for people who are hungry. It does matter if some insect somewhere carries a disease that will kill or cripple your child if nothing is done. It does matter if the water stops running or the bridge you are on falls into the river while you are driving on it.

If we all pay attention to what  actually matters we may discover we get along rather better fixing stuff that we all agree needs fixing.

Words worth heeding.

John is only wrong about one thing. I am plenty old enough to remember the grape boycott. In fact, I once met Cesar Chavez, a man I admired enormously.

Sí, Se Puede!
KC's View: