Starbucks And Consumer-To-Consumer: A Way To Save Stores?

Last week, a Starbucks mobile director made a casual comment during a Seattle panel discussion: "There's us to you and you to us and the third generation will be how do consumers interact with each other around our brand. That's where the power will be," said K.C. MacLaren. This goes beyond mere limitless discussions in a brand environment.

Envision an approach that merges geolocation, mobile communication, social sites and—critically—a trusted retail brand and in-store interactions. Put it all together and the future may not look so dim for in-store, after all.

MacLaren's comment was recounted by a reporter in the audience and confirmed by Starbucks PR. The statement is intriguing in its vagueness, but is this indeed the next major retail move?

Starbucks, which did not want MacLaren elaborating on the concept, said he gave one example as Starbucks' existing For the sake of humanity, let's hope his vision is light years beyond that site, which has a strangely narcissistic quality to it. Starbucks: "Let's have a series of customer discussions about anything you want, as long as it's limited to how great we are or ways where we could become even more awesome." It's like a science experiment gone wrong, merging a suggestion box with a teen fan club.

No, the idea of consumer interaction fueled by a retail brand is so much more than that. It goes beyond mere limitless discussions in a brand environment. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube do quite well there. Not much value in moving those discussions to Starbucks, Walgreens or Macy's.

The power being referenced needs to bring relevance to the in-store experience. In Starbucks' early days, it was more about conversation and atmosphere than coffee. It was a place to go and relax, interact and get some work done. It was a—please forgive me—destination. The power is getting people to have those conversations back in the stores.

Many retail chains could pull this off, with coffee shops, bookstores and DIY shops being among the most natural. But this ignores the first concept in the quote, which is that this step involves digital communication between consumers. Geolocation and social have already offered the ability to stand in the middle of San Francisco, New York or Chicago and broadcast messages such as: "I have a passionate interest in feldspar rocks and in repairing their maligned reputation in the mineralogy world. Who's with me? And who among y'all are within 20 blocks of me right now?"

There are three problems with this approach. First, most of the desired audience may have no reason to be listening at that moment, as they didn't know such a message was coming. Second, few consumers have bothered to broadcast such messages. (Why? Security and the thought process that says: "What are the chances anyone will respond? To avoid disappointment, I won't try.") If people reply, where do we go?

There is a huge opportunity for some trusted brand (Starbucks for general issues, Target or Best Buy for anything electronics/tech related, Macy's/TJX for fashion, Autozone for car discussions, etc.) to address those issues. What if the chain sponsored sites dealing with those topics and included geolocation (coming from the trusted brand, not another consumer) alerts to find prospective participants. Such get-togethers could happen in-store, providing convenient meeting places. A store employee or contractor could moderate the discussions and provide support (beverages, chairs, samples, etc.). Think of the CRM potential if notes from those discussions could be integrated with existing profiles?

With that in mind, let's go back to the original quote. "There's us to you and you to us and the third generation will be how do consumers interact with each other around our brand. That's where the power will be." Indeed. This scenario leverages mobile (and its geolocation), desktops and social networking, but it's supported/protected/powered by a trusted brand. The brand enhances its positive association with the topics it chooses to facilitate and makes its stores meaningful again. And, yes, after the discussions, the attendees happen to be right there.

What do you think? Maybe we could get together at the local Starbucks and discuss it?