Starbucks Corp. said it isn’t just dropping its small-sized drink from its drive-through locations throughout the country, it’s preparing for the future.
In addition to removing the 12-ounce “tall” from its drive-through menus, the Seattle-based coffee chain has added images of some newer items. Starbucks maintains the changes are in response to consumer confusion over its many offerings, from hot chocolate to oatmeal, as well as highly customizable coffee beverages.
But the redesigned drive-through menu also makes room for federally mandated calorie information at chain restaurants, which is expected late next year. The provision was part of the health care reform bill passed last year. Restaurants with 20 or more locations will be required to post calorie counts on menus, menu boards and drive-throughs.
When the regulations go into effect, restaurant chains from McDonald’s to Dunkin’ Donuts may have little choice but to simplify what’s posted on drive-through menus, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic, a restaurant-industry consultancy.
For the consumer, the result will be a lot more information on menus, and “it’s going to confuse the consumer,” Tristano said. After all, Starbucks cited confusion as the main reason for downsizing the menu. Additional information could make reading menus challenging.
Starbucks spokeswoman Deb Trevino confirmed that the new menu was designed to accommodate the coming national calorie mandates, and in areas where similar laws are already in effect.
Some consumers are wondering whether the coffee chain’s redesigned drive-through menu is part of an effort to push bigger, pricier items. Starbucks points out that the new menu board includes items that range in price.
The menu promotes a variety of food and drinks with pictures, including low-priced snacks like the petite vanilla scone as well as higher-priced items like the pumpkin-spiced latte.
Starbucks has made some bold decisions that led to consumer criticism, but the moves likely helped orchestrate the brand’s turnaround over the last two years:
The chain’s afternoon closure for espresso training among its staff in February 2008 was widely criticized as an event that would push faithful customers to rivals. Experts since have pointed to the event as a turning point in customer service.
In January 2009, the chain also stopped offering decaffeinated and bold-flavored coffee in the afternoon, only brewing pots when a customer ordered one. Starbucks, in an effort to cut costs and reduce its environmental footprint, defended its decision by saying these orders were infrequent in the afternoon. The chain has since turned comparable store sales positive, including a 9 percent gain in the U.S. for the most recent quarter.
At the Starbucks drive-through, meantime, customers still can order tall-sized beverages. They just won’t be listed on the menu. There’s even a smaller-sized “short” drink, too — if you know to ask for it. And that can be frustrating to customers who aren’t regulars.
“The reaction by consumers is appropriate,” Tristano said of the menu-board changes. “They will feel like they’re going to be guided to a higher-priced item.”
Despite the coming mandates, Starbucks maintains that its customers were the primary impetus for change.
“We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from our customers that the drive-through menu was hard to read,” Trevino said. So the coffee chain went through an “exercise of looking at the menu,” she said, and trimmed offerings by about two-thirds “based on most-commonly ordered items.”
The changes were completed last month.
Starbucks has drive-throughs in 37 percent of its 11,000 U.S. locations, and they are more likely to be in suburban areas, Trevino said.