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Coffee and a Donut

September 22, 2015 | By John Cumbelich

For the past eleven years (since I moved into my current home) I have driven past two establishments every morning at 7:30 am on my way into the office. By my calculation, this equates to approximately 2,700 unique observations that contemplated every kind of weather condition, during every season, in varied traffic conditions, occasional road work, on weekdays, and even some weekends & holidays. The findings in these observations occurred consistently (e.g. EVERY DAY) regardless of any combination of variables.

The two establishments in question are a 7-11 and a Starbucks. They are separated by a mere 352 feet. They front on the same street and have identical traffic counts, according to county traffic data. Both have left and right hand ingress and egress. Both have ample on-site parking and additional street parking – all free. Both establishments have comparably visible signage featuring standard corporate logos and colors. In short, the two establishments feature highly comparable real estate that is equally accessible to the trade area, visitors and those passing through.

Yet morning after morning, year after year, decade after decade (yes, I am in the second decade of this study) a radical and telling phenomenon occurs. Every morning, the parking lot in front of the 7-ll fills up. At exact same time the parking lot in front of the Starbucks also fills up. And that is where the similarities cease.

The 7-11 parking lot is filled with trucks. Small, medium and large trucks. Some vans too. Almost all of the trucks have lawnmowers, shovels, hoses, wheelbarrows, and other equipment. These trucks are owned by gardeners, landscapers, contractors, tree service and pool companies, etc. I’m certain of this because many of the trucks have lettering on the doors with names like Budget Pool Service, Martinez Gardening or Wilson Door Company. I have observed that many if not most of these convenience store customers own their own small business, which they operate directly out of the truck. Yet the trucks rarely have only one person in them. Usually it’s a couple of guys, sometimes several. These are presumably “crews” that work, and dine, together.

When the crew enters 7-11 they are dressed in remarkably similar apparel. Worn jeans, boots, a T-shirt, and an unbuttoned long sleeve over shirt (frequently plaid). When the crew exits the 7-11, they each carry with them a cup of coffee and a baked item – usually a donut. The crew does not purchase oatmeal, egg sandwiches, bagels or fruit. The crew drinks coffee and eats donuts. The crew does not wait for someone to make their coffee for them. They pour their own from handy coffee pots that stand ready in a variety of flavors.

At precisely the same moment that the owner/operators of the crew are doing business with the owner/operator of the 7-11 store, exactly 352 feet to the north, the parking lot in front of Starbucks also fills with cars. There are no trucks in front of Starbucks, only cars, SUVs and mini vans. There are sports cars, German sedans and electric and hybrid vehicles. None of these vehicles have lettering on the doors with a business name. But several have bike racks, ski racks or occasional paddle boards rigged to the top. Virtually none of these cars have more than one person in them. The customers are all dressed in business casual attire – some more buttoned down than others. They all carry a smartphone.

The Starbucks customers spend more time in the store. That’s because so many of them have a lengthy order (just for the coffee) and they have to wait while someone else makes it. This gives the store a full, busy vibe, sort of like a club. Even though Starbucks does now offer a donut on their menu (one) most of the club orders something else. Although it’s not a foolproof observation, since none of the club has their business name emblazoned on their vehicle, I wonder how many of them own their own business. Not many I think. Just like the people who serve them their coffee.

I can’t help but observe that despite how obviously different the crew and the club are on the outside, what they absolutely have in common is a morning ritual centered around coffee and a donut (or a latte and a scone). And while their rituals are remarkably similar, the crew and the club have compartmentalized themselves into cliques through a variety of differentiators including job description, apparel, automobile choice and the price point of their coffee and donut.

Is there one central factor the keeps the crew and the club outside of each other’s place? Is it price? I think that’s a little bit of the reason. Is it because of social status? Probably some of that too. Mostly, I believe that the crew and the club repeat their choice every day because they fit into their own places perfectly, they feel comfortable among their peer group, and their store choice suits their lifestyle.

There is an invisible line that separates the crew and the club. They almost never cross the line.   The proven and lasting retail brands, brands like 7-11 and Starbucks, are the ones that identify with a big audience of customers such as these and can offer them something fundamental. The audiences can be very different on the outside, but the crew and the club remind us that most people want the same thing – they just want it offered in their own unique way.