Starbucks killed the salon, and CEO Howard Schultz can't bring it back

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After the stock market took a nosedive Monday morning, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz sent his employees an email asking them to be "sensitive" to customers who might be concerned about their finances.

"Today's financial market volatility, combined with great political uncertainty both at home and abroad, will undoubtedly have an effect on consumer confidence and perhaps even our customers' attitudes and behavior," Schultz wrote in his memo. "Our customers are likely to experience an increased level of anxiety and concern... Let's be very sensitive to the pressures our customers may be feeling, and do everything we can to individually and collectively exceed their expectations."

Schultz, ever the purveyor of social good, made a similar move back in March when he launched the Race Together initiative, which urged Starbucks baristas to write "Race Together" on coffee cups and strike up conversations about race with patrons of the chain. Mere hours after Schultz announced the program, social media platforms were teeming with snarky tweets and biting critiques that denounced it as a slapdash effort to piggyback on discussions surrounding the hot-button topic of race relations.

What Schultz wants, it seems, is for Starbucks to be a salon, a place where people can gather and start a dialogue about social issues of import. For years, people flocked to cafes and other venues for this exact purpose—think Les Deux Magots or Café de Flore in Paris, both of which were frequented by writers and intellectuals in the 1900s. But while cozier independent coffee shops may still serve that purpose to some degree, Starbucks has become more of a pitstop on the way to the office. People may still use it as a rendezvous spot—say, to host a Meetup or grab coffee with a couple of friends—but, by and large, the Internet has become the place to create and sustain open conversations with large groups of people.

In Fast Company's July issue, senior writer Austin Carr spoke with Schultz and examined how Race Together went wrong:

Schultz believes corporations have obligations to society beyond what tangibly impacts their bottom lines. And with 22,000 stores and 75 million customers per week, Starbucks can certainly influence public discourse. In an age of the Koch brothers, Hobby Lobby, super PACs, and Washington lobbyists—a time when "corporations are people," as Mitt Romney phrased it—Starbucks wants to make its values felt...

Schultz has long championed corporate social impact, but his high-profile push on the issue of race has some from both the business world and the black community wondering whether there's a limit to the growing trend of what's known as "CEO activism."

But despite Schultz's efforts to weave social change into Starbucks's mission, measures like Race Together and this week's memo will continue to come off as decidedly insensitive and unnecessary. Starbucks built a brand that embraced the grab-and-go customer: Those who rely on Starbucks for their early-morning caffeine infusion aren't expecting a barista to do much more than take their orders and make small talk about the weather.

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