In Line at Starbucks: Brand Interaction Dunkin’ Donuts Can Learn From

100726-dunkin-starbucks-1If you are a westerner with a pulse you have most probably been in a Starbucks.  With its over 11,000 stores in the US alone, Starbucks has grown to become the assumed go-to location when someone says, “let’s get a coffee”.  In fact, they might even say ‘I want a Starbucks”.  Very few brands can boast of having their name become interchangeable with the common noun form of the product that they produce.  And if you have been in one you have probably stood in line in one.  Can you remember what the experience was like?

A similarly (but not quite as) large number of you have also been into a Dunkin’ Donuts.  And invariably stood in line in that Dunkin’ Donuts.  How did that waiting experience compare to the Starbucks line?

I have been thinking recently about how similar both Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts are.  Yet how different.  Both brand’s core products are more similar than it might seem.  Coffee drinks, pastry-type edibles and a few extras.  But I would submit that the experiences in both stores are so different that we might have a hard time thinking of them as competitors.

First and foremost in the brand differentiation is the customer experience of waiting in line in the store.  It is just my conjecture but I will bet that you usually don’t mind the Starbucks ’sequence of experience’ of ordering, paying and then waiting for your drink.  And I will also bet that you usually find the same ’sequence of experience’ at Dunkin’ Donuts to be frustrating and too slow.

Why such a marked difference in experience?  I think it has a lot to do with how each customer is addressed by the brand at points along the sequence path.  At Starbucks the cashier, or brand representative, greets you and takes your order.  For most drink orders, they pass it along to the barrista who is busily making drinks while being visible, and vocal, to the entire store.  The cashier may grab a pastry out of the case or pour a regular coffee for you but they are quickly back to the register for you to pay.  You then move over to the barrista station to wait for your drink which usually takes no more than a couple minutes.

As an aside, the Spring Street Starbucks in New York’s SoHo, one of the busiest stores in the country, recently renovated the space and added a ‘greeter’ position to the experience.  This person greets the customer and asks what they want.  The greeter then radios the order via headset to the barrista about 15 feet (5m) away.  A moment later when you step up to the next open cashier, they ask you your order again to double check as they charge you.  This feels like a redundant step to me and I think the greeter position should be eliminated.  But I appreciate the effort of Starbucks to experiment with new ways of making the purchase experience better.

But back to the discussion at hand.  The Dunkin’ Donuts experience is not very different.  But different enough.  Upon entering, the customer is usually faced with a ‘line forms here’ sign and a small arrow.  Instructions that are missed maybe 10% of the time which can cause ‘next customer’ uncomfortableness.  As you wait in line you watch the cashiers handle each order mostly by themselves, getting the donuts, making the drinks, bagging everything, etc.  Consequently, a lot of time goes by where a customer is standing in front of an untended register.  The perception from the line then starts to change from that of passivity to one of questioning, “is that guy being helped?”  ”Where are the employees?”  ”Why is this taking so long?”  The situation gets even worse when someone orders a sandwich or wrap from their lunch-ish savory menu.  Then the Dunkin’ employees disappear deeper into the back of the store and do stuff with food that can’t easily be seen from the front.  And it takes a long time.  I am willing to bet that many more people have stepped out of a Dunkin’ Donuts line than have stepped out of a Starbucks line.   The perception that things are just moving way too slowly  and that it will take too long to get a coffee is much easier to arrive at in a Dunkin’ Donuts than at Starbucks.

So how might Dunkin’ Donuts improve the customer experience and reinvigorate their brand?  This, of course, is a topic for a much bigger discussion than just this article, but a we can start with a few suggestions…

First, to follow up from the previous descriptions, Dunkin’ Donuts would do well to keep someone at the cashier station and have other staff dedicated to the filling of orders.  Instead of a ‘barrista’ they could be called ‘donuteers’, ‘glazers’, ‘holers’… whatever.  A catchy name that sticks.  But keep them back there filling orders to keep the line moving.

Also, since we are talking about lines, a couple things are very important in regards to the process of ordering and then waiting for that order to get filled.  Dunkin’ Donuts lines typically are standing in front of large areas of unattractive wood laminate.  Essentially visual baffles for the coffee makers they have behind them.  With maybe a shelf full of bags of coffee and plastic travel mugs nearby.  Which amounts to not much.  This view has to change!  A Starbucks line always passes by a chill case full of bottled drinks, prepped sandwiches and salads as well as a case at eye level of pastries.  Often are the times I have walked into a Starbucks after lunch thinking I would just get a coffee and end up succumbing to the temptation of adding a brownie to my order.  Which brings me to a big question: why why why are the donuts at Dunkin’ Donuts behind the cashier???  They should be in your face as you wait in line so you can press your nose up to the glass and get a good look at the dripping chocolate glaze.

The other lesson that can be learned from the Starbucks queue is to always keep the line moving.  Having customers order and move to another location to wait for their drinks is smart planning.  At the very least the movement from one location to the other keeps people in line happy that they continue to move forward and it keeps the post-order customer content in the perception that they are moving to another location so good things must be going on with their order.  Ordering at the cashier and then standing in the same spot to wait gets boring.  And the people in line behind you get antsy.  Even moving just to the side of the register to wait so the next person can place their order gives the subtle feeling that you have been sidelined.  And no one is working on your order.  Many fast food places such as McDonald’s and Burger King do this and it never feels good.

Another suggestion: get rid of your styrofoam cups.  I know that all commercial food retailers struggle with plastic and waste but a styrofoam cup is a big, fat white visual reminder that the drink vessel I am holding will soon be languishing in a landfill somewhere in New Jersey.  When I have a choice between buying a coffee in a styrofoam cup or one in a paper cup – even if I have to cross the street to do it – I will buy the drink in a paper cup every time.  And to make matters worse, having an illustration of the styrofoam cup as part of Dunkin’ Donuts brand identity is a painfully clear message to consumers that the brand has little if any care for the environment.  It shows that Dunkin’ Donuts is out of step with the larger culture as environmental concerns are increasingly important to people and a valuable part of any brand’s message.  So not only loose all styrofaom, but start to talk about how Dunkin’ Donuts has developed an environmental strategy, how it recycles, its energy usage, etc.

Suggestion: Tighten up your franchise rules in regards to… well, in regards to everything.  Some stores look o.k. with appropriately splashy graphics, signage, etc.  Some stores look terrible.  Comfort is also a factor.  I have been in one store near Wall Street that was easily 90 degrees F(32C).  And make rules about promotions applicable brand-wide.  I knew a store near me had a ‘free-donut-with-large-coffee’ situation.  But I was in another part of town.  So when I was in need of caffeine and I spied another Dunkin’ Donuts my mouth started to water for that free donut sugar buzz. So I walked in and ordered my free donut but was immediately told that they didn’t do that.  And then I noticed that their pricing was different.  As was their ‘combo’ price structuring.  Confused, I reduced my order to a small coffee and got out of there.  Price structuring and promotions should be uniform across the brand.  In fact this leads me to my next suggestion:

Get rid of promotions all together.  There is nothing like fierce competition, especially when it comes from yourself.  Promotional sales are a two edged sword.  Sure a cheaper promotional price for an item will draw customers.  But a sale price will also deter some customers when that item is at its regular price as they will decide to hold off on their purchase until the item goes on sale again.  Sales also send the subtle message that the store’s prices are a little higher than they really should be.  Does Starbucks ever have advertised sales on it’s products?  Not that I can recall other than to push new products such as it’s ridiculous VIA line.  If your product is good and its pricing is right. Stand behind it.  There are other methods for drawing customers that can be utilized.

Another suggestion: It is o.k. to experiment with new products in your line but be ruthless in honing your products down to the things that you are really good at.  Dunkin’ Donuts is known for its donuts and its coffee.  Drinks and pastries.  The Coolatta drinks line seems reasonable in that it still resides within the drinks category.  But a tuna salad sandwich on a croissant?  Please.  It is understandable for Dunkin’ to eye the lunch category as a place to expand but it not only does not work it actually dilutes Dunkin’s core identity.  i have never, nor do I think I will ever, hear anyone say, “let’s go to Dunkin’ Donuts for lunch.”  It is a coffee and donuts place, not a fast-food lunch place.  Not only that but ordering something from the savory menu always seems to put the Dunkin’ employees into a confused tail spin and off their game.  They first look bewildered that you ordered a sandwich, then they look annoyed that they have to go prepare it, then they disappear for a while to do it.  Which, of course, then puts the customers in line into a tizzy.  All lending to general uncomfortableness.  Dunkin’ Donuts cannot compete with the McDonald’s of the world for the lunch crowd.  And they never will.  The stores are not set up for it and they shouldn’t attempt it.  Stick with what you are very good at and expand only within those parameters.  Not to mention that it messes with the brand’s identity.

I could go on but I will stop here.  Every time I experience a Dunkin’ Donuts I cannot help but think that it could be done a whole lot better.  Where are the refreshed graphics?  Where are the updated store interiors?  Where are the employees that seem like they care?

There are many opportunities already out there that Dunkin’ could capitalize on that would get people interested.  For one, Dunkin’ Donuts could add a huge line of gourmet donuts with high quality ingredients such as spices and dark chocolate.  They could also do changing lines of promotional donuts with crazy flavors.  Which could be a fun press opportunity.  Or Dunkin’ could ride the tail end of the cupcake craze and do a line of high-end cupcakes.  Or cultural coffee drinks such as Italian granita, Irish coffee, Greek frappe… to name a few.  The ideas that could fit within the brand’s perceived expertise are many and varied.

All of these lessons Dunkin’ Donuts can learn from not only Starbucks, but also the trends showing up in the independent bakeries, patisseries and coffee shops out there already.  Lessons that Dunkin’ would do well to seek out.  Before the brand’s irrelevance becomes too much to overcome.

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  • Duner says:

    Interesting, but essentially refuted by empirica evidence. Stopwatch. Dunkin’ Donuts is always faster. Starbucks takes twice as long, at least. I actually check my watch. The writer is correct about the perception issue. Good insight into the method of moving people along so that they don’t notice the transaction taking 8 minutes as opposed to the typical 3 minute DD experience.

    The writer makes the fatal flaw of assuming that his/her distorted perception is universally adopted. The “larger environmental movement”? Are you kidding? Dunkin’ Donuts uses the styrofoam cups because the larger public demands it. Paper is cheaper, so DD would sell coffee in those cups if it could. It does with small sze coffee. DD’s website and press releases state that DD is the largest seller of coffee byu the cup in the world. Most sold in styrofaom cups. That’s more than Starbucks, which has twice as many locations.

    I always see workers at DD with exactly the team approach that the writer pines for at DD. I see a guy staying over the ovens. The cahsier stays at the cash register except to turn around and grab doughnuts (which, I suppose, is why they are right behind the cashier), and there is soemone else making the drinks. I mean, I SEE this.

    Maybe the shops sampled were not representative and, as the writer states, the brand standards need to apply everywhere. THAT is a great point.

  • Demian says:

    Thanks for the comments. I will readily admit that my survey of Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks waiting experiences was nowhere near exhaustive. Or empirical for that matter. But, as you mentioned, my point is that it’s about the perception. Regardless of the actuality.
    To the issue of styrofoam cups, you may be correct in that a majority of the population is happy with styrofoam. I do not know. But my point about the environmental movement is that it is a mindset of the consumer that is trending upward. If, for example, only 30% of a population has a certain opinion that is one thing. But if it is 30% and steadily growing that is another thing all together. So if environmental awareness is a growing trend then Dunkin’ Donuts is either ignoring it or blind to it. Which is a bad sign for any brand. Jamba Juice is another popular brand that uses a lot of styrofoam. They should stop using it also. Besides, these are personal-sized drinks we are talking about here, not large quantity containers that have to maintain a certain temperature for a long time. Whether a coffee or a smoothy, they are consumed in a matter of minutes. Whether a cup is styrofoam or paper probably matters very little to the enjoyment of the drink. And, again, I m admitting this is just conjecture. Maybe a study should be done. But beyond a poll, just because something is popular within a culture does not mean that it should be continued. Sometimes it takes a leader, an organization, a brand even, to make unpopular choices in order to point people in a direction that will ultimately be better for them. This could be an opportunity for Dunkin’ Donuts to step out and talk about it.
    As for what you see at your Dunkin’ Donuts, a well oiled operation may very well be taking place. I am sure a lot of research went into Dunkin’s store layouts and operational efficiency. But I think you are one of the lucky ones. And this just further bears out my point about brand-wide standards. Some people may live near a well run, well maintained Dunkin’ store. And some may not. My store sampling is very much urban. There are five or six Dunkin’ Donuts stores that I have been to multiple times and the quality of the store and the quality of the experience varies widely. Starbucks is definitely a much more focused brand in this regard.