Anna Burnside: High street ‘star’ making its bucks at our expense
STARBUCKS. It calls itself a coffee shop but we use it as a 21st century’s bus shelter; a place to sit down in the airport, escape from the rain in town, check emails in an unfamiliar city.
The “coffee” – more accurately a vase of hot milk with a randomly spelled name on the side – is way down the list of reasons to visit.
Yet despite its rubbish beverages, as a nation we spend a good deal of money in this American import. Since opening in the UK in 1998 the chain has sold £3 billion-worth of skinny cappuccinos and blueberry muffins. What sticks in the throat like a £2.95 spiced pumpkin latte is that, over the same period, Starbucks has paid just £8.6 million in tax.
According to a report by Reuters, the company has posted losses in the UK for the past five years, which means it pays no corporation tax. This is hard to believe when you are standing in a long queue for a £1.55 chocolate brownie, and sits strangely with the executive line that the UK operation was “successful”, “profitable” and that they were “very pleased with the performance”.
Margaret Hodge, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee and not a woman to tolerate a sub-standard Frappuccino, has called on HMRC to investigate Starbucks’ tax affairs. Steve Baker, a Tory MP and taxation expert who describes himself as “a highly free market person” thinks there are “some serious questions to answer here” and you don’t need a working knowledge of double entry book-keeping to agree. Customers did not appear to be pleased. Pollsters YouGov said its BrandIndex survey of 2,000 people showed a drop in the company’s reputation score to -26 from +3.
The bigger question, beyond even the pressing issue of where all our granola bar pennies actually go to if Starbucks is not making any money, is why we allowed this monster to colonise our streets in the first place. The company has pulled off the trick to which all marketers aspire: making us desire something that, before it came along, we had no idea that we wanted.
Pre-Starbucks, we topped up our liquids in tea rooms, cafes (not caffes), and pubs. Stations had snack bars. Airports had cafeterias, as well as proper restaurants, with tablecloths and waiters. If we fancied a cup of coffee at work we popped up to the canteen, or put the kettle on. There was always the vending machine. I have fond memories of the hot brown liquid – coffee seems too flattering a noun – dispensed by the machine in this very newspaper’s former premises. By entering different combinations of numbers it was possible to add sugar, milk and what would now be called an “extra shot”. A finger-scalding brown plastic cup cost, if memory serves, 20p.
Now, otherwise sensible people spend hundreds of pounds a year buying hot drinks they could easily make themselves. To say nothing of drinking the equivalent of a daily McDonald’s quarter pounder with cheese. Calories in a normal sized mug of instant coffee with splash of milk: 18. In a venti (Starbucks-speak for enormous) salted caramel mocha with whipped cream: 556.
If we are not carrying our big old cups of love handle into the office, or putting them in the special takeaway coffee holder of our fancy baby buggies, we are drinking them in one of Starbucks’ 19,972 global branches, as Nora Jones croons in the background and we congratulate ourselves on the cosmopolitan nature of cafe culture.
This is not cafe culture. This is an American corporation having a laugh at our (considerable) expense. I am all in favour of clean, cheery establishments selling delicious espresso-based beverages and tempting baked goods. I love being able to work on the hoof, plug in my laptop, jump on to the free wifi and have a handsome young man bring me coffee while I type.
We can, however, enjoy these pleasures in an establishment that pays its taxes and keeps its profits in the UK. As the nation that puts haggis on pizza, deep fries it and serve it with chips, we can surely borrow the Starbucks idea from the Americans (who took original inspiration from Italian caffes) and make it our own. Impressionable youngsters will want to drink the recognisable American brand (while wearing Abercrombie & Fitch sweatshirts and Converse trainers obvs) but those of us old enough to vote should do so, with our feet and our disposable incomes.
It can be done. The citizens of Totnes banded together to prevent another coffee chain, Costa, opening in their town. With a population of 7,500 and a thriving tourist trade it already has 42 establishments serving coffee.
Tangerine Tree and Fat Lemons are the kind of interesting independent operations that make small towns in Devon attractive to visitors, with a bit of personality and lovely, home-made cakes. Who wants to go on a day trip and drink the coffee that is also available at their local petrol station?
Starbucks’ long-haired lady smiles blankly over far too many of our city centres already, joining the opticians, mobile phone shops, banks and mini-supermarkets that make so many urban areas interchangeable. The streets look the same, the coffee tastes the same. Both as dreary as each other.
The best of luck to Margaret Hodge with her committee’s investigations. I look forward to toasting her success with something dark and strong that does not have Annie, Ana or Hannah scrawled on the cup. «
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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