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Serving Coffee to the Little Emperors

In The Wall Street Journal this morning, Janet Adamy has a wonderfully compelling profile of the Starbucks company’s assays in China. To the surprise of many, they seem to be coming off with some success. The story is imbued with fascinating insights on the evolving Chinese culture. To wit, the rapidly growing customer base for the far east coffee shops:

Starbucks is relying on Mr. Wang to navigate through the rough patches. He calls the target market China’s “little emperors.” China’s one-child rule created a generation who have been pampered by parents and grandparents and have the means to make indulgent purchases. Instead of believing in collective goals, these young people embrace individuality. Starbucks is in sync with that, says Mr. Wang, given its customized drinks, personalized service and original music compilations.

“Their view of this world is very different,” Mr. Wang, 49, says. “They have never gone through the hardships of our generation.”

Coffee is a drink that, until recently, was very thoroughly unpopular in China. Starbucks, with tasting programs and sundry marketing schemes, is changing that. But other core elements of its American business have translated to China with great ease.
On a warm summer evening at a Starbucks in downtown Shanghai, customers lined up at the counter to order mango Frappuccinos, fruit and vegetable cups and blueberry cheesecake. Warren Guo, a 30-year-old who works in foreign trade, sat on the patio and shared a piece of cheesecake with his friend David Wang, 35, who also works in foreign trade. Mr. Guo says he doesn’t like coffee but comes to Starbucks because there are “many girls.”

Fang Sun Yan sipped a latte with whipped cream on the patio while checking her cellphone for messages. The 23-year-old runway model started coming to Starbucks to meet friends. Now she says she’s grown “a little bit addicted” to coffee and visits as often as three times a week.

Guo Shi Yuan, a 48-year-old Buddhist monk dressed in a gold robe, ordered a cup of black tea and sat at another downtown Shanghai Starbucks. He’d traveled from his nearby mountain village by train to meet another monk to discuss their faith.

“I come here because I prefer the environment more than the coffee,” Mr. Guo said while music by Marvin Gaye played in the background. “It makes people feel comfortable.”

The global market: 1) A very beautiful thing, 2) A nagging reminder that things twixt the two major powers aren’t as bad as all that, and 3) Probably the best way to learn about the world.

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