Sohini Sen

"The new-age Indian customer is demanding and unforgiving": Manmeet Vohra, Tata Starbucks

Seattle-headquartered global coffee chain Starbucks recently launched its 75th store in India, at Bandra, Mumbai. This is the brand's 27th store in the city.

Less than three years back, in October 2012, Starbucks launched its first store at Mumbai's Horniman Circle. The brand entered this market through a 50:50 association between Starbucks Coffee Company and Tata Global Beverages.

India is Starbucks' fastest growing market. Currently, the brand is present across Mumbai, Delhi NCR, Pune, Bengaluru and Chennai.

What goes into finding the perfect spot for a new outlet? Manmeet Vohra, director - marketing and category, Tata Starbucks, answers this and more.

Edited Excerpts:

"The new-age Indian customer is demanding and unforgiving": Manmeet Vohra, Tata Starbucks
"The new-age Indian customer is demanding and unforgiving": Manmeet Vohra, Tata Starbucks

Edited Excerpts

What goes into launching a new store? What's the biggest challenge?

The No.1 challenge is getting the location right.

While we would want to be everywhere our customers want and expect us to be, we have to be very thoughtful about the way we expand. It depends on the quality of the retail space, the operation costs, the economics associated with opening the store, the supply chain... that is, to be able to ensure we can provide our complete offering to our customers in that store, whether it is food, beverage, merchandise, etc.

Also, whenever we open a store, we are always sensitive to the surroundings.

Before joining Starbucks you were with Tag Heuer, where you helped set up several boutiques. From a luxury watch brand to a coffee chain - how are the retail level challenges different?

Starbucks, at the end of the day, is a lifestyle brand. It's an aspirational brand, one that most of our customers aspire to associate with. People want to be seen at Starbucks. At one point, the Hamilton House store (Connaught Place, Delhi) was the most checked-in place, online.

Our customers are well travelled, aware and discerning. The way I look at it is: Whether you are in the luxury watch space or a high quality, aspirational coffee space, fact is your customers are very discerning. They want the best.

The new-age Indian customer is demanding and unforgiving.

We're sure studying coffee consumption habits is a big part of your mandate at Starbucks. Tell us about your observations...

In India, even people who drink tea at home, drink coffee outside... simply because it is more socially acceptable.

The way our customers consume Starbucks in the West is different from the way they do so in Asia Pacific markets. In the US, it's mostly in the morning, on the go, on the way to work; it's like your daily dose of caffeine. But in Asia, the social connotation of coffee is much stronger.

In most of our decisions we bear in mind the cultural sensibilities of the geography. Take for instance, our store design decisions. Most of our flagship stores have the culture of that place deeply embedded in the design. The design in our Hyderabad flagship store is inspired by Hyderabadi pearls, the Pune store has a lot of copper design elements because the discovery of Pune as a city can be traced back to the discovery of copper coins. Similarly, in Delhi's Hamilton House store, a lot of material has been sourced from local artists.

What's your typical patron like?

Our TG is a mix of college students, young working executives, young couples, and families with children.

Some of our products are a hit with the children. About 60-65 per cent of our customers are under the age of 40. They're probably between 20 and 40 years of age.

A lot of grandparents come to Starbucks over the weekend, in our mall stores.

You frequently introduce and discontinue items on your menu... how are these decisions taken?

We're consistent with most of our beverages through the year. Some are limited time offerings; these LTOs are introduced every two to three months. In any case, our customers like to customise and personalise their orders. We also have a concept of bringing 'the favourite' back. People are waiting for the Toffee Nut Latte around Christmas.

Understanding what to introduce involves many factors. Our alphonso mango drink was based on customer research that showed they wanted to have a fruit-based drink for a change, every now and then. Such insights drive these decisions. Over the years, some of our beverages have become very popular - like the Pumpkin Spice Latte and Coffee Nut Latte.

A lot of things go off the menu because we are constantly evaluating our products. We also had to bring some items back, like salads in some stores and breakfast items in others. We have an ongoing dialogue with the customer about this. I don't think we have ever made a passive marketing decision. It has always been taken after engaging with our customers and store partners.

Do consumer preferences differ from city to city?

It could depend on the format of the store, not the city.

A store in a corporate office will behave slightly different from a store in a mall. In the first kind, people are there for meetings and want to consume breakfast items. In the latter kind, the shops open after 11:00 am so consumption patterns also differ.

But our bestsellers stay consistent across store types.

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