A few weeks ago, Starbuck’s opened its first Signing Store in the United States. Located at 6th and H Street in Washington, D.C., the store first appears to be a typical Starbuck’s, but a closer look reveals a unique coffee house, specially designed for those who are deaf or hard of hearing.
For instance, the store features a more open layout and low-glare surfaces in order to facilitate visual communication. Store employees, 20-25 of whom are themselves deaf or hard of hearing, are fluent in American Sign Language (ASL). Deaf baristas wear “ASL aprons embroidered by a Deaf supplier,” while those who can hear sport “I Sign” pins. The store also contains some high-tech advancements to ease ordering, such as “digital notepads and a console with two-way keyboards for back-and-forth typed conversations.”
Those adaptations sound nice, but should a global icon do so much to accommodate a relatively small number of people who tend to be scattered throughout the population? With over 28,000 retail stores, Starbuck’s is by far the “largest coffeehouse company in the world,” as well as the third largest fast food restaurant, behind only McDonald’s and Subway. The firm employs about 277,000 people and has annual revenues of over $24 billion. In light of such scale, isn’t it an unnecessary distraction to design and operate a solitary store that’s so specialized?
First, it’s important to note that Starbuck’s Signing Store is strategically located near Gallaudet University, “a federally chartered private university for the education of the deaf and hard of hearing.” Gallaudet enrolls over 1,100 students, and if they are like other college students, which they undoubtedly are, most probably love to drink coffee. So, Starbuck’s has a ready-made, geographically concentrated target market, within a short walk of its store.
A second consideration is that a customized coffee shop is something that’s replicable. In fact, the Washington, D.C. outlet is Starbuck’s second Signing Store. The company opened the first one in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 2016. Perhaps there are suitable spots for similar stores in other parts of the U.S. or the world. In American alone, there are nearly 50 residential schools for the deaf.
Likewise, there may be opportunities to develop customized stores for individuals with other special needs. For instance, there are nearly 40 schools for the blind in the U.S. It also may be possible to tailor stores for certain fields of study, e.g., music or visual arts.
Third, Starbuck’s Signing store has produced some very positive PR for the company. A Google search of “Starbuck’s Signing store” returns over 8 million hits, including many complimentary news pieces in major media like USA TODAY, CBS News, Fortune, and the Washington Post. The National Association for the Deaf also has praised the company's efforts to educate and enrich the lives of its constituents and many others.
Fourth, and perhaps most important, the Signing Store fits squarely within Starbuck’s mission, values, and goals. The company claims an “ongoing commitment to inclusion, accessibility and diversity,” which is broadly reflected in its mission statement: “To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time." More specifically, the first of Starbuck’s four core values encourages “Creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome.” This value is evident in the company’s 2018 goals, which include ongoing global social responsibility that creates “meaningful impact in the communities it serves.”
Although it’s unlikely that customized stores will ever be profitable on the scale of its traditional outlets, Starbuck’s should still be able to leverage the specialized model for meaningful growth. Moreover, with every store opened to serve disadvantaged people groups, the company builds tremendous community goodwill and gains very positive global publicity. For all these reasons, Starbuck’s Signing store is an emblem of “Mindful Marketing.”