Commentary

Starbucks Returning To Its Roots In Italy

In a coals-to-Newcastle play, Howard Schultz is finally entering the marketplace in Italy after having exported his Seattle coffeehouse concept to 70 other countries and serving more than 90 million people a week worldwide. It is partnering with Italian company Percassi to open its first outlet in Milan next year; they then plan to expand to other cities across Italy.

“There are very few markets and stores that I’m as intimately involved in as this,” the Starbucks chairman and CEO tells the New York Times’ Jim Yardley in an interview after the announcement during Fashion Week in Milan. “We’re going to come here with great humility,” he added, echoing the main theme of an extended press release that tells the entire creation story.

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“Everything we’ve done to date sits on the foundation of wonderful experiences that many of us have had in Italy,” Schultz says about a trip to a trade show in Milan in 1983 when he was “the marketing director of Starbucks, which then sold whole-bean coffee from a handful of stores in Seattle.”

That journey “has long figured in Starbucks’ mythology,” writes the Seattle Times’ Janet I. Tu, with Shultz saying that his vision for the company” began then and there.

Starbucks carefully couched its announcement of the long-awaited move in a way that showed it was aware it was entering a market with strong convictions — sometimes described as bordering on the religious — about coffee,” writes CNBC’s Leslie Shaffer. 

Or, as Fortune’s Phil Wahba puts it (after pointing out earlier that “Starbucks now operates in other markets known for coffee snobbishness, notably France”): “Seemingly mindful of the fierce coffee chauvinism of Italians and aware of the risk of being seen as an ugly American company coming in and imposing its ways, Schultz emphasized that the store will show deference to Italians and their coffee culture.”

Starbucks’ Italian partner, The Percassi Group, is a retail and real estate developer, and it will own and operate the stores under a licensing agreement. It is “based in Bergam, near Milan, and owns cosmetics chain Kiko. It has a franchising deal in Italy with U.S. lingerie chain Victoria's Secret,” Reuters’ Caroline Humer reports.

It also “partnered with Benetton for 30 years, brought Zara to the Italian market and has worked with a string of American brands including Nike, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger,” reports the Financial Times’ Lindsay Whipp 

Antonio Percassi, its president, echoed the key talking point of the day, saying: “We know that we are going to face a unique challenge with the opening of the first Starbucks store in Italy, the country of coffee, and we are confident that Italian people are ready to live the Starbucks experience, as already occurs in many other markets,” Rhian Lubin reports for The Mirror

Domino’s Pizza is another American company that “is attempting to bring an American interpretation of classic Italian fare to the market,” the FT’s Whipp points out. “As with Starbucks, Domino’s emphasized that its pizzas would be customized to fit with Italian sensibilities, with locally sourced ingredients and promising ‘ultimately a local pizza menu.’” 

According to the Starbucks’ press release, which contains a blazer-and-chinos clad, slightly-out-of-focus snapshot of Schultz standing in front of a colonnaded building way back in 1983, he “found a full-sensory experience greeted customers who stepped through the doorways of Milan coffee houses. Italian opera played as baristas ground coffee, steamed milk and pulled espresso shots in graceful, powerful motions as if they were conducting an orchestra. He noticed the baristas were celebrated professionals who seemed to know each customer they served.”

Another “media asset” shows a more-refined Schultz — which is what a billion or three of personal assets will do for you — with hands clasped serenely at his waist, standing in the center of Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, one of the world's oldest shopping malls, reportedly after having made the announcement yesterday.

One thing that’s undeniable: Shultz and the Starbucks media relations team know how to grind out an announcement on a slow-news Sunday (Oscars excluded) with the punch of a perfectly brewed double-shot espresso.

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