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    Is the buzz gone from Starbucks?

    [Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
    Starbucks employee Yongmi Park, left, serves Elizabeth Bunbury at an Albertsons in St. Petersburg.

    By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published December 2, 2002

    They've sipped half their coffee and hot apple cider at a Starbucks Coffee shop in St. Petersburg, but Mitch Hershberger and Bryan Richard are not impressed.

    "It's totally mainstream, there's nothing unique about it," said Richard, a paralegal from Miami Beach.

    "It's really lost the edge," agrees Hershberger, a waiter, sitting outside the chain's coffee store in St. Petersburg's BayWalk complex.

    Starbucks, once chic, cutting-edge and impossible to find, has spread across the Tampa Bay area like coffee spilled over the tabletop. The stores have become so pervasive that Starbucks coffee bars appear inside several Albertsons grocery stores in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. There's even a Starbucks at the SuperTarget in Wesley Chapel in Pasco County.

    But with that popularity, even some frequent customers say the fad of it all has faded and the cutting-edge feel is gone.

    "It's not like a specialty coffee shop anymore; it's just another chain," said Xavier Steiner, 24, an institutional bond salesman, after picking up two coffees at the Starbucks on Tampa's Dale Mabry Boulevard.

    Steve Moroz, 31, still grabs a Starbucks Frappuccino in Tampa sometimes to perk himself up in the afternoon. But he admits, "You feel like a sheep when you go there."

    A Starbucks spokeswoman declined to comment.

    But rapid expansion is a part of the Starbucks strategy. A new Starbucks location typically eats away at the business of the older one nearby, at first. Within a year, sales at the original store recover. Even if they don't, the company would rather have one store lose those sales to another Starbucks than to a competitor.

    Now Starbucks has more than 4,400 locations in North America. It continues to open three to four stores a day.

    Erik Gordon, a professor of marketing at the University of Florida, said Starbucks is in the midst of a classic scenario faced by many other fast-growing companies.

    "The marketing decision is, do I stay small and exclusive with a certain cachet and make a certain amount of money? Or do I try to make a lot of money by getting really big?" Gordon said.

    All signs point to getting really big. The company reported systemwide retail store sales of $3.8-billion for the year that ended Sept. 29, a 29 percent increase. It hopes to open 1,200 new stores in fiscal 2003 and increase total revenues by 20 percent.

    Just a few years ago, the Tampa Bay area had so few Starbucks stores that a sharp-tongued San Jose, Calif., sportswriter derided the entire region in a haughty critique after the NCAA Final Four, held in St. Petersburg.

    We were only "a one-cup town," he wrote dismissively, because he could find only two Starbucks coffee shops -- one in Tampa International Airport and one in a Barnes & Noble bookstore.

    Now Pinellas and Hillsborough counties boast more than two dozen Starbucks stores, not counting several in Tampa International. So far, the North Suncoast remains largely Starbucks-free.

    With so many people sipping so many eggnog lattes and espresso Macchiatos, it's clear that thousands of Tampa Bay residents love Starbucks. James B. Twitchell, a visiting advertising professor at the University of Illinois, on leave from the University of Florida, said Starbucks succeeded partly because it managed "to sort of re-ritualize the process of consuming the drug caffeine." It sold the image of customers sipping steaming drinks in fancy furniture enjoying the buzz of coffee and conversation in a place away from home.

    But that image could change, now that this once-exclusive coffee has become available just a few paces away from $2.99 pineapples and buy-one-get-one-free apple pies at the grocery store. "You may very well so dilute it that it no longer becomes special," Twitchell said.

    This situation is similar to Haagen-Daz, which transformed from a small specialty ice cream into a national powerhouse brand, but which later lost market prominence, Gordon said.

    Starbucks has been "super successful so far, as Haagen-Daz was, but they're going to have to do some clever marketing to be just as successful five years from now as opposed to just a yawn," Gordon said. "It'll be very interesting five years from now to see what the Starbucks brand means."

    Vincent Garcia, 37, who works in real estate for the city of Tampa, has stopped in Starbucks shops occasionally and said, "It bugs me to spend $4 on a cup of coffee when there's so many places where you can get a great cafe con leche."

    But many individual customers are delighted at the ever-increasing expansion. Chelsea Kuhlman, 11, gazed into her chocolate creme, a frothy non-coffee concoction, and said, "It's awesome!" Her mother, Jill Kuhlman, had just brought Chelsea into a St. Petersburg Albertsons, and bought a cafe mocha venti for herself.

    Elizabeth Johnson, 35, who works in television production, said that "getting Starbucks is cathartic; it's good for the soul." She loves the latte she gets every day at the BayWalk Starbucks.

    But even she is not sure about lattes alongside the produce aisle.

    "You have to go to a real Starbucks," she said. "Albertsons doesn't count."

    -- Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.

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