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Exerting influence

Released at: 23:13, 16/02/2018

Exerting influence

Photo: Starbucks Vietnam

Starbucks’ arrival in Vietnam marked a change in the way coffee is made and served in the country.

by Linh San

At around 9am, seven days a week, it can be hard to find a vacant seat at Starbucks Indochina Plaza Hanoi. While on weekdays its clientele is predominantly businesspeople and some university professors and students, on weekends it’s families, friends, and young students getting together to enjoy high quality Arabica coffee from around the world, handcrafted Starbucks beverages, and great food in an unparalleled environment that all can enjoy. 

February 1 marked five years since Starbucks opened its first flagship store, and the global icon now boasts 34 stores in Vietnam, in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Hai Phong, and, most recently, Da Nang. While its success can indeed be measured by store numbers, it can also be said that the arrival of Starbucks Coffee changed the dynamic of the country’s coffee industry. “Five years ago, most people were excited to see Starbucks arriving in Vietnam and were mostly curious about what it is,” said Ms. Patricia Marques, General Manager of Starbucks Vietnam. “Now, our customers know the brand, know our products, and, more importantly, they know our partners. We have been well received, as proven by our strong business performance and expansion.” 

From simple to enormous change

“Vietnam is such a big country, not only in terms of population but also geographically. So, there are enormous opportunities for us to continue our growth without any need to rush. Vietnam has such a young population and I know they are the future customers of Starbucks.”

Ms. Patricia Marques, General Manager of Starbucks Vietnam.

Ms. Marques recalled that when the first store opened in February 2013, it was the only coffee shop that stayed open during Tet (the Lunar New Year). The store was only closed for 24 hours, from noon of the last day of the old year to noon on the first day of the new year, because she believed that her partners (as Starbucks call their staff) needed to have a traditional Tet holiday and spend time with their families. Other coffee shops then recognized there was a need to serve customers during Tet. “That is a little sample of how things are changing,” she told VET. 

Other changes have been more subtle, like the practice of customers ordering and paying for their drinks at the counter, waiting until they are prepared, and then taking them to the office or to school, which was almost unheard of in Vietnam back then. Now, though, Ms. Marques can rightly point out that almost all coffee chains use the same practice as Starbucks and that the take-away side of the business is growing.

The way Starbucks develops its partners is also different. Training programs are lengthy and ongoing, providing a choice for many young Vietnamese to start working as a barista and then establish a long-term career at the organization. Five years ago, Ms. Marques remembered, when trainees were being instructed on taking customers’ names and writing it on the cups, to make sure the right drink went to the right customer, many trainees were skeptical about such a system and told her that customers would neither understand nor accept it. Today, though, customers are often surprised when partners not only remember their name but also their favorite drink. 

One partner at Starbucks Indochina Plaza Hanoi who has been working for the store for four years from the beginning, told VET: “Having a job at Starbucks is a privilege, where I’m trained well and learn in a good working environment.” They not only learned their daily tasks and routines but Starbucks puts behind plenty of resources for coffee knowledge as well as barista skills, promoting Coffee Masters and Barista Champions, encouraging and supporting them for local and international Barista Competitions. “To me, Starbucks would not be here today without our partners,” Ms. Marques said. “They are the ones bringing the Starbucks experience to customers, making customers’ favorite coffee every day.” 

Another change that has made Starbucks successful in Vietnam is how it meets customer needs. They have tried hard to gain a presence in local neighborhoods to provide convenience for customers when buying coffee. The brand never ceases innovating, to bring freshness and a degree of excitement to customers. Innovation is not just about products; it’s also about changes in store design and the environment. “The store is unique in every location but still a Starbucks space, where customers feel comfortable,” she said. “This is also one of the strengths of Starbucks, providing a relaxed place for customers that can be used to study, hold business meetings, or meet with friends and family.” There are many new ideas Starbucks plans to bring to customers in the future and this is one of its strength in bolstering return customer numbers.

The biggest change that made all Starbucks’ partners feel proud and excited was when the Starbucks Reserve Vietnam Da Lat whole-bean coffee was first introduced in early 2016, which has returned early this year and been widely welcomed by customers and partners. The limited-quantity coffee is again available in all Starbucks stores throughout Vietnam from January 5. Ms. Marques remembered that in 2013 there were only couple of international brands in Vietnam and on the domestic side, no one had Arabica because Robusta dominated. She now sees the potential of Arabica because she visits Da Lat every year. “I see how much more interest there is from farmers about turning to Arabica because there is demand, and I think it’s a great opportunity to showcase Da Lat coffee to the world,” she said. Starbucks has worked with farmers in introducing the Da Lat brand. “After the first launch of Starbucks Reserve Vietnam Da Lat in 2016, we were very happy that customers loved the coffee and it made the name of Cau Dat in Da Lat become so popular,” she said with evident pride. “We expect this year will be the same, because the coffee crop is even better.” Introducing Da Lat coffee to the world is one of the more interesting features of Starbucks’ journey in Vietnam. Partners and customers both rejoiced when the news of this loved coffee’s arrival to Vietnam was announced.

Consistent in Vietnam

Five years on, Starbucks is pleased to have staked out a presence in Vietnam as a premium coffee house. The competition is quite intense these days, especially in the coffee-restaurant business and between international and local brands. The arrival of Starbucks elevated market standards and was when many others decided to invest and compete for market share. Ms. Marques, however, sees one key differentiator that has made Starbucks so unique: consistency. “We are consistent in introducing new flavors, building great stores, providing excellent service, and customizing coffee for our customers,” she said. “I believe this is what makes us different.”

She added that over the next few years it will continue to work hard and never cease its innovation in quality and consistency. It will also continue its sterling efforts in social responsibility. Over the past five years, Starbucks’ managers and partners have been involved in many social responsibility efforts, including painting schools in Da Lat and supporting Room to Read’s literacy program, which seeks to transform the lives of children by developing literacy skills and the habit of reading among primary school students, to name just a few.
Starbucks Vietnam is working on something new. Ms. Marques disclosed to VET that her next major effort will be focused on supporting recycling. “There is a lot of recycling in Vietnam, but no organized system for treatment,” she explained. “I hope we can work closely with the community to develop a system for recycling plastics, paper and cardboard. That is my plan for the next few years.” 

Of course, the brand will also continue to grow. “Vietnam is such a big country, not only in terms of population but also geographically,” she said. “So, there are enormous opportunities for us to continue our growth without need to rush. Vietnam has such a young population and I know they are the future customers of Starbucks.” 
Ms. Marques is looking forward to the next five years. It has been an interesting journey. “We are interested in making this a long and wonderful journey, for our partners and our customers, so that wherever you happen to be in the country you will know that just around the next corner you will find a Starbucks, with our wonderful local baristas, ready to prepare your favorite drink over and over again,” she said.
 

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