Monday, 12 March 2012

Starbucks versus Costa

I know some people think that Starbucks are on the same axis of corporate evil as McDonalds and Microsoft, but quite like them. I've recently had the opportunity to do a bit of a head to head comparison with their main UK competitor, Costa Coffee - and I'm afraid, Costa, for me Starbucks is well ahead.

It's interesting that last year Costa ran a 'we asked people to compare and 4 out 5 (or some such number) preferred our coffee to you know who.' This is falling for the dreadful Pepsi marketing error. Many years ago, Pepsi did taste tests and 'proved' that a lot of Coke drinkers prefered the taste of Pepsi. Pepsi entirely missed the point. People don't sit down, compare two colas on taste and buy the one they like better. When they buy Coca Cola, they buy the package - and when it comes to the whole ethos, Pepsi comes second best.

Similarly, it wouldn't really matter if Costa's coffees do taste a little better. Because that's not an issue. Starbucks coffee tastes fine. (I'm sorry coffee snobs, it does.) But the whole experience of going and having a coffee at a Starbucks is significantly nicer. Some key points to take note of, Costa:
  1. Starbucks premises have a lighter look and feel. Costa has dark wood to Starbucks' light wood. Result - you feel depressed the minute you walk in a Costa shop.
  2. The staff are better in Starbucks. I'm sorry, I don't know why, but they are. (It would be interesting to compare pay, but I don't know if that's the reason.) Starbucks staff are pretty well always cheerful and friendly. Costa grudgingly serve you. What's more, almost every Costa I've ever been in, all or almost all of the staff had English as a foreign language. This just doesn't help when you ask for anything that isn't straight off the menu board. It's a pain.
  3. The design of the counter is better in Starbucks. Practically every Costa I've been in has the serving bar too close to the till. So you end up with the queue to collect drinks running back into the queue for the till. Messy.
  4. The loyalty card system is better at Starbucks. With Starbucks I have an iPhone app that not only keeps track of my reward information, I can even use it to pay for my drinks. At Costa I have to manually enter the LONG card number into the website to check my points.
  5. The fun extras are better at Starbucks. I love the little card you get every week that has some iTunes giveaway like a book or music. Costa may do something, but I haven't seen it yet.
All in all - no contest. Get your act together Costa. It's not all about the coffee. Actually it's not mostly about the coffee. Coffee is cheap. We pay around £2 of that £2.30 not for the coffee but for the experience. Don't take this as a put down, take it as cheap consultancy. I'd normally charge several thousand pounds (and please do get in touch at if you'd like more detailed help). But you can have this for free.

Image from Wikipedia


  1. Yes, but Caffe Nero knocks them both into a cocked hat.

  2. For me, it's all about the coffee. Sorry, but Costa is better. Better = better coffee.

  3. I agree with Anonymous about it all being about the coffee. So it's Costa. And Richard is right; if it's about coffee, then Caffe Nero is the one.

  4. Yes, I was only talking about the coffee.

  5. Sorry Brian. I am a little disappointed in this blogg. Surely there is no 'best' of anything. There may be a statistical distribution that implies one brand is more popular. And this may be due to marketing pressure, personal tastes or political/moral views, etc. Bit like the elevator problem.
    PS I prefer Cafe Nero: I prefer their coffee, decor and jazz.

  6. Whoa - coffee obviously gets people excited!

    I can't comment on Caffe Nero - there isn't one in my area.

    For those saying it's all about the coffee, I admit my palate is pretty rough. Frankly, as long as it tastes good, I'm not too fussed. But I do think you miss the point. You could buy the coffee for 30p - all the rest is for what surrounds it. If all you want is great coffee you are better off making it yourself.

    Vic - puzzled by your remark. I never said anything was 'best'. I am just comparing the experience of visiting Costa and Starbucks.

  7. Coffee doesn't get me at all excited. I only drink the coffee at Caffe Nero because their tea is undrinkable.

  8. To join in belatedly on this debate, Starbucks would be my absolute last choice: I find their coffee manages to be both weak and bitter at the same time! But let us not forget the essence of the coffee issue. All of these places are second-rate American substitutes for the real thing. Go into any little bar in a back street anywhere in Italy, and you will get coffee twice the quality for half the price!

  9. I don't doubt that there is better coffee both in Italy and (for that matter) in the UK in back street coffee shops, but the point was not to say where to get the best coffee (I still say the best is at home), but which is the better experience of these two chains, and why.

    There's is also, to be fair, limited benefit to knowing you can get a great coffee in a backstreet in Italy when you've got 45 minutes to spare in Swindon and want somewhere to go for a quick coffee.

  10. My earlier comment was made before I had my one-a-day coffee treat. My error was misreading/misunderstanding the last paragraph. I took this to imply that you considered the Starbuck experience was better (best!) than Costa's. Also your comment regarding consultancy I took to believe that there was more depth to your comments.

  11. I have to disagree with you about Starbucks v costa
    Most new costa stores are very cool and bright looking, modern and inviting and are in the process of reimaging a lot of the older stores, yes I work for costa and to be honest costa prides itself on its service and I don't believe for one second that Starbucks service is better than ours.
    Your point about the nationality of costa employees is a rather strange one as I've been in many costa shops and been served by British and foreign staff and found all of them very pleasant, finally as for the coffee not being that important, I work in my shop everyday and believe me,to a great many people the quality and taste of the coffee is very important, I know this because I hear it everyday. I'm English by the way not foreign!

  12. I would be disappointed if a Costa employee didn't stand up for them (and I can't help thinking that if you are a Costa employee that uses the word 'reimaging' you are in their marketing department).

    Obviously all I can go on is the sample of coffee shops I've been in - it may not be representative, but it has been very consistent and I've tried them in both sophisticated and more rural places.

    The point about English as a foreign language arises primarily because I quite often order something that isn't technically on the drinks menu. (A hot milk with caramel.) Starbucks employees take this in their stride, but a lot of the Costa employees seem to struggle with understanding what I am asking for. It may be a coincidence that the have EFL, but I would have thought it makes it harder to move off the standard menu.

  13. For me having a cup of coffee is almost a ritual. It's the perfect drink you can share in silence or in the best company. If you are on your own, then you focus on the taste and the environment. However if you are in a lively conversation, then what matters is the person where the taste and decor come to a second place. What you said about the big companies, Brian, it's very true, everything is about the marketing. When the both bowls are full, which one would you choose? The one you like the most.