Cool beans at Starbucks Shanghai


Let’s be honest: Starbucks gets a bit of a bad rap. Once the pinnacle of cool American culture, it’s now oft-cited as the epitome of corporate deviance, with a product that’s deemed average by aficionados. So, it was with a dose of scepticism that we visited The Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Shanghai.

Opened in December 2017 and billed as, ‘a theatrical, experiential shrine to coffee passion.’ this is the world’s largest Starbucks, at 30,000 square feet, and has a lot to live up to.


It has its own roasting facility, and first impressions are reminiscent of an amusement park crossed with a scene from Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. The giant roasting machines process batches of unique small-lot Reserve coffee, which is sourced from 30 different countries worldwide. The beans are then pumped through copper pipes suspended from the ceiling to Starbucks’ many coffee bars, or packed up and sent to online customers across China. Meanwhile, staff in white uniforms busy themselves with the machines, and the dynamic station-style boards display the currently-roasting blend, while tourists queue up to snap the whole process with a sense of childlike awe.

It’s pure retail theatre and it works. 

The Roastery also harnesses some great new AR technology (designed by Starbucks and Alibaba Group) making it one of the most advanced digital locations for the brand, in the world. The technology helps customers personalise their experience with a digital web-app platform that also incorporates a digital menu, and can share information about the coffee bars and brewing methods, as well as unique experiences on and offline. At each stage of the journey, customers can unlock virtual badges which, once all collected, can be traded for a custom filter to share on social media.


So what about the actual product? From the reserve coffee to nitro draft lines, alcoholic drinks and new tea blends, The Roastery has it all. There are three wooden coffee bars including Starbucks’ longest ever, at 27m. The bars act as a kind of stage where hundreds of baristas handcraft the coffee using one of six brewing methods: ModBar Pour Over, Chemex, Coffee Press, Siphon, Espresso and the proprietary Clover-brewed coffee.

We opted for a Coffee Flight which promised the same bean brewed three different ways. And we have to report that it was good. Very good.

We sipped it down with a cake but we could have chosen anything from the high-end menu of savoury and sweets – the menu has been designed by acclaimed artisan baker Rocco Princi and is crafted by his team of more than 30 skilled bakers and chefs.

In true cultural style, we exited through the gift shop laden with branded and unbranded coffee accessories, hessian sacks and bags. After picking up a couple of gifts we left feeling buzzy and excitable, and not just because of the caffeine. Starbucks has excelled itself with this truly groundbreaking retail experience, and we duly doff our branded gift-shop caps.



Sean Dwyer

The rise of brandless branding


In a world where logo tees reign supreme and brand-babble is a language in and of itself, a curious phenomenon is afoot. The brandless brand. That pared back packaging, those no-nonsense labels – it’s branding, Jim, but not as we know it. We take a look at a few brands who are doing ‘brandless’ their way.

Going brandless, literally

One US online grocery retailer has taken the concept to its logical conclusion and called itself Brandless. There’s very much still a brand identity – think muted colours and honest labelling – but, in a bid to keep their prices low, they’ve cut out everything that could be considered Brand Tax™. By running their own delivery system and retailing online, for example, they’ve been able to up their quality while keeping their prices at $3, for everything. Consumers appreciate the honesty and feel like they’re getting a great deal – it’s pretty clever. See also, Target’s Smartly range, with 70 items of life essentials, many for under $2.


Eating, unbranded

The brandless revolution stretches way beyond mere FMCG and has taken a delicious leap into eateries. Take Tommi’s Burger Joint. Nestled into London’s busy Brewer Street, it has the kind of thrown-together, oh-so cool styling you’d expect to find in a late-night bar. The vibe is relaxed, the patrons are stylish, and the menu? Painstakingly designed on expensive paper stock with a prominent logo at the top? Not for Tommi. Try four delectable burgers and two sides scribbled on a piece of cardboard. The lack of branding becomes its own brand, and right now that feels so fresh.


The Muji way

And then there’s Muji. The grand-daddy of brandless branding. Taking its name from ‘Mujirushi Ryohin’, which literally means ‘no brand quality goods’, it channels a clean, minimalist aesthetic, and its products are designed as empty vessels for customers to use as they wish. You won’t find a trace of branding on any Muji product or in a Muji retail space – even product messaging is scaled back to a minimum to allow the pieces to take centre stage.

What does it all mean?

If the purpose of branding is to create a shortcut for the brain and help us make quick, informed decisions, why the sudden do-down of everything brand engineers hold dear? Well, authenticity is name of the game. A brandless brand doesn’t feel like its selling to consumers – we feel like we’re getting a good deal, we’re in on the secret, sticking it to the man. Smartphones mean we have endless information at our fingertips. If we’ve seen a branded product once, we’ve seen it a million times. So it makes sense that sellers with a scaled-back identity feel new and exciting. What’s the next step? Do away with packaging all together? There’s an eco movement already working on it – we’re interested to see where this trend takes us.



Sean Dwyer

The future of retail is in the hands of Gen Z

Gen Z

Forget millennials – enter Gen Z. Aged 24 and younger, with famously short attention spans and an insatiable appetite to have-everything-right-now-and-if-they-have-to-wait-a-second-for-it-to-load-they’ll-give-up, the next generation are set to have huge influence on the retail market. What do we know about them that can help retail brands prepare for the future?

Recently, there’s been an influx of findings telling us that, contrary to popular assumption, digitally-savvy Gen Z-ers are actually more traditional when it comes to shopping – especially compared to their predecessors, the Millennials. A major pan-European study found that nearly a quarter of Gen Z do their research and purchasing in store, compared to only 14% of Millennials (Retail Buying Study 2018). And in the UK, the same study found that 56% of Gen Z respondents said they most prefer to shop in a physical store.

Does this really suggest that the next generation have reverted back to the ye olden days? If we dig a little deeper, we find that 84% Gen Zers report that they make shopping part of their day out (Retail Assist, 2018). With under 24-year olds much more likely to have free time on their hands, this makes sense. So, is the question for retailers actually about how to keep the shopping spark alive as this audience grows up?

Merging the online in the offline
The obvious answer lies in technology. Gen Z are the first group to grow up with mini computers in their pocket, learning to tap before they can talk. Smartphones live perpetually in either their pockets or hands, so it’s inevitable they feature heavily when they’re shopping in stores.
When shopping in store, according to the National Retail Federation and the IBM Institute for Business Value, 52% of Gen Z compare prices with other retailers, while a whopping 73% interact with social media, telling family and friends that they’re shopping and asking for advice on what to buy. Furthermore, as they’re making their decision, 51% hunt down a coupon, discount or promotion.
A good Wi-Fi connection, therefore, is clearly a must. But is there more that can be done? Retailers should be wary of going overboard, and ensure tech they provide supports a simple and intuitive shopping experience, as this group will see straight through gimmicks. As one might expect for these digital natives, Gen Z are considerably more open to personalisation, with one study by the NRF and IBM reporting that over half feel comfortable sharing their personal data in order to ensure a customised experience, compared to 41% in mature markets. When assured their data will be properly protected, this increases to 61%, highlighting trust as a key theme.

The future’s social
For brands looking to capture and keep this generation, social media has to be a huge focal point. Whereas first adopters of social media joined Facebook and Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat are more popular Gen Z – these primarily visual apps offer an ideal spot to capture an attentive (or addicted?) audience. As time-poor as Gen Z may become as they enter emerging adulthood, you can bet they’ll always find time for social media. And with the tech supporting direct sales via these apps becoming more prevalent, the gap between content and sales is closing fast.

It’s a changing world out there, and never has a Darwin-esque quote been more relevant: “It’s not the strongest retailer that survives, but the ones most responsive to change”.



Sean Dwyer

Exhibitions and retail – footfall driver or style over substance?

Gentle Monster

This summer the competition to create the most epic ‘bricks’ experience got hotter with the arrival of South Korean sunglass brand Gentle Monsters in Argyll Street, London. Gentle Monster takes the idea of immersive shopping to a whole other level, with each of the brand’s stores around the world taking on its own story concept. And in London, that concept is… Kung Fu aliens (we kid you not) – the story being that a robot alien landed on Earth, became captivated by the beauty of Kung Fu and took it back to its own planet. So far, so nuts.

Walking into the store is like walking into an elaborate film set or exhibition, and a pretty bonkers one at that. Customers are greeted by a tribe of larger than life, kinetic aliens who, as a colleague explained, are ‘training in Kung Fu’. They’re doing this to a backdrop of a digital waterfall and a giant ceremonial gong, which goes off every 7 minutes as their cue to start training.

The eccentric idea continues on the lower ground floor at the ‘battleground’, where two giant kinetic aliens fight in a bamboo forest surrounded by an audience of smaller robots, cheerleading with glittering pom poms in their hands.

It’s totally amazing, impressive… and also rather bemusing. Because what on earth (sorry) does it have to do with sunglasses?! Well, seemingly nothing. Many retailers incorporate exhibition-style experiences into their store but usually it’s to aid sales, or at least related to the product in some way.

Nike Town

Nike is a great case in point, with an almost permanent exhibition area in Nike Town in which it borrows display techniques from gallery spaces to showcase its product and behind-the-scenes work (if you haven’t done so already, check out the current exhibition at London’s Oxford Circus which shows off the work of the motion graphics designers behind its latest projects).

Other brands align themselves to those in the arena of culture and art, seeing a symmetry between the two which will interest their customer demographic – like COS. Having established a legacy of artist collaborations which celebrate the brand’s influences from design and architecture, it’s soon to open a brand new hybrid concept store in London’s glossiest new shopping district, Coal Drop Yard in Kings Cross. Here, customers will not only be able to browse and buy from its latest clothing collections, but also immerse themselves in the work of established and emerging artists.

Both Nike and COS incorporate exhibitions into their stores in a way that feels seamless, credible and intrinsic to their brand essence. Also, they’re integrated in a way that keeps the customer in the store, whiling away hours, potentially leading to more sales. Gentle Monster on the other hand, doesn’t appear to use its concept as a sales tool at all. In fact the product – sunglasses – feels quite removed from the idea – aliens. And interestingly, it feels removed physically too, with the sunglasses themselves displayed around the perimeter of the store… presumably so that the theatrics are left to shine in all their eccentric glory. The thing is, when we were there, we didn’t actually see anyone trying the product on. Any customers that were in the store seemed to be there to get that perfect shareable shot … and, pic filtered and posted, they left. Gentle Monster may have turned its store into the perfect Instagram set, and in that way is bound to drive footfall, but will it actually sell enough product to sustain the cost of a bricks and mortar store in one of the country’s prime shopping districts? Time will tell… but one thing’s for sure, it’s awesome, original and creating a LOT of attention, and that is surely great for the reputation of any brand. 



Sean Dwyer

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