Starbucks is missing out on a big opportunity

Far be it from me to criticize Howard Schultz, the legendary genius behind Starbucks. But the coffee chain, which I love, has a grande problem, and I have a solution.

A woman walks past a Starbucks cafe in New York.
Getty Images
A woman walks past a Starbucks cafe in New York.

Howard, your ever-present stores are ever empty — between meals at least, and especially those away from transportation hubs. It's a lull that ends only in some suburban areas when kids pile in after school or extends into an evening bleakness akin to Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, the masterpiece you have artfully employed on occasion.

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Yes, you have added various sandwiches and soft drinks to make Starbucks more palatable at lunch and in the hours afterward. But, as you know, it's not only about the product. It's about the experience. Stores that look like a daylight reproduction of Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" painting might be an experience but not one that would makes the company's stockholders happy.

It seems you have already been thinking a bit about this, with your "Meet Me at Starbucks" campaign. But this seems largely focused on the scrapbooker set, not the business crowd.

So, here is my hack: Starbucks Business Class cards, which salespeople buy like your gift cards, online or in stores, and can send, via app or by mail, to business associates or prospects.

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The cards, which only can be used in the late mornings and afternoons during the week at specific locations, would include the buyers' contact information so recipients can offer thanks and, hopefully, set up a meeting. Hey, this beats blasting e-mails through LinkedIn.

You could use your existing app for this card with a new tab that lists local companies, in various industries, near a particular store location. This would be wildly helpful in advance of business trips for business travellers to take advantage of downtime.

Perhaps recipients could only use the cards if the buyer is there to authenticate, or at a certain predetermined meeting time. That way the recipient can't just use it for a solo caffeine (or sugar) pick-me up, or, worse, re-gift it.

And if they toss the card away because they don't want to meet with the person? Well, that's the real appeal, right? While Starbucks would benefit greatly from lots of unused gift cards, you could provide senders a way to retract them after 30 days of nonuse. You could even create the option for a store-specific, and time-of-day-specific, redemption.

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For the buyers, considering the high cost of acquiring a new customer these spam-filled days, this kind of card might not be terribly expensive, and it would be easy to expense with accounting departments or, if need be, the IRS.

Some sales people might even buy the cards in bulk. Bulk, Howard. Or venti in Starbuckese.

I thought about suggesting a business-class lounge, which would allow card buyers, through the app, to reserve a small conference room for meetings; yes, on rare occasions it can get jammy for a meeting or a tête-à-tête, even in the afternoons. (Sometimes, too, the music isn't exactly work-inspiring.) This is an architectural-feng shui issue beyond my ken, however. It might also seem a tad exclusionary for Starbuck's egalitarian culture.

But maybe a pilot in Seattle? C'mon, you've tested crazier ideas. Remember that Mexican hot chocolate? (Personally, I loved it and wish you would bring it back.)

Those are my suggestions, Howard. We can make Starbucks the business-networking center in the afternoons. You are welcome to the name, or you can call the card the Brainstorm Card. Very Type A, eh?

So, let's talk, err, over coffee. I'd send you a card, if I could.

Commentary by Andrew Schroepfer, chief strategy officer at Hosting, a Denver-based managed cloud-services firm. He is also a former tech analyst at Goldman Sachs. Follow him on Twitter at @SHrepFUR, which is the phonetic spelling of his name. Of course, you can meet him at Starbucks!