Starbucks in China, or how reading the Atlantic can make you dumber

To say that I’m no expert on China is a grand understatement. To be honest, I have no clue about China at all, at least no more than your average white Canadian middle-class schmuck who thinks that nee-howing the hostess at the local Emerald Palace is the apex of worldliness. I can probably find China on an unmarked world map with fair accuracy, and I know that Beijing is the capital city, but beyond that – sorry.

So, having that cleared up, I will now proceed to call bullshit on a cute little story that appeared in the Atlantic just a few days ago (and two days earlier in the Wall Street Journal), according to which a Starbucks grande latte costs about $27 in Beijing. Once the price is adjusted for national income.

Before I continue, I want to point out that the original WSJ article was quite good. It lists a number of political and economic reasons why coffee in China is so relatively expensive. That was interesting. And informative. I expect as much of WSJ reporting. Had I read only the WSJ article, I wouldn’t have bothered with it any further.

However, the Atlantic article was bad. Really bad. In fact, it was so bad that if you have read it, you are currently a little dumber for it than you were before.

Let’s take this step by step.

According to the Atlantic’s Matt Schiavenza, Chinese per capita income is about $7,200, while a cup of name-brand hot milk with a shot of overly bitter coffee costs $4.80. Since US income per capita is about 5 1/2 times greater, Mr. Schiavenza multiplied the price of joe by 5.5 and – voila: we have $27.

That’s cute. But it’s also wrong.

I have no idea where Mr. Schiavenza has his numbers from. Seriously. No idea. According to the World Bank, Chinese GDP per capita in 2012 was $6,091, not $7,200 – as claimed by Mr. Schiaveza. The funny thing is that the earlier story in the WSJ pegged the average national income at “about” $7,500. I have no idea where that number comes from, either – but it seems obvious Mr. Schiaveza felt uncomfortable with it, and reduced it by $300. I have tried to find the source for either of these numbers. I really tried. I even went to Wikipedia, which lists nominal GDP per capita according to three different sources, but none of which come even close to $7,200 – never mind $7,500. I then went to the Wikipedia page on “per capita income,” which lists a bunch of additional measures, such as GDP (PPP) per capita, GNI (Atlas Method) per captia [???], and GNI (PPP) per capita, but those numbers are totally different again.

If any of my handful of readers could point me to where the WSJ got its numbers from, and which source Mr. Schiavenza used for his article, I would be truly grateful. Because, for now, I’m utterly mystified.

Ok, moving on: according to the World Bank, US GDP per capita in 2012 was $49,965 – a whopping 8.2 times more than China’s middling $6,091. Which means that Starbucks grande lattes in Beijing cost the equivalent of $39.38, not $27. Which means the Chinese must be even crazier than either journal suggested.

Ha, those weird Chinese!

But, wait a minute. China is a really big country. I mean, really big. It has 40 times more people than Canada – and since nobody knows how many people live in Canada, that’s about four times as many as in the US. And it’s also really large, just a smidgen bigger than the US of A – including Alaska and Hawaii.

And just like in Canada – or the US – not everybody in China makes the same money. You think income inequality in the US is bad? Well, it is. The top 10% of Americans make about 16 times more than the bottom 10%. But in China – they make almost 22 times more. And that’s if you believe all the high-rolling Chinese report their income honestly.

The top 10% of China are about 130,000,000 people – that’s more than four times the population of Canada. Try to picture this: four times as many people as live in all of Canada constitute the top 10% of income earners in China.

Or try this one: two years ago, there were more than a million millionaires in China. China has more billionaires than Russia. And only the US has more billionaires than China. Ok, almost four times as many. But, I think you get my point: there are a huge number of really, really rich people in China.

Even more interestingly, there are a number of cities in China where people make good money – even by US standards – on average. Measured by Purchasing Power Parity (look it up), average income in 2011 in Beijing was 19,854 – about the same as in Pensacola, Florida. And there are at least four Starbucks in Pensacola – for about 52,000 people. Beijing has maybe a dozen – for 20 MILLION.

Average income (PPP) in Guangzhou is about $23,700, about the same as the Fort Collins–Loveland, Colorado Metropolitan Statistical Area (damn you, United States Census). Fort Collins has about 147,000 people and just about a dozen Starbucks. Guangzhou has about 10 MILLION people and about a dozen Starbucks.

Start seeing a pattern here? If not, let me help you out: there are Chinese cities that have more people than most US states, but have fewer Starbucks in absolute numbers than almost any fourth-rate US town – there are more Starbucks in Detroit than in Beijing.

In China, there are about 850 Starbucks cafes. In the US? 13,279. 16 times as many. But it has less than a quarter of China’s population. So, while in the US, there is one Starbucks cafe for 23,453 people, in China there is one Starbucks cafe for 1.56 million people. That means that, per capita, the US has 68 times as many Starbucks cafes as China. Even if you adjust this number for income, that is: divide the excess number of Starbucks cafes in the US by the income ratio (8.2), the US still has 8.32 times more Starbucks than China per capita of people who make about the same amount of money.

Wait… this is interesting…

Starbucks coffee in China costs about 8 times more than in the US, relative to average income. However, there are also only about 1/8 as many Starbucks in China for every consumer with the same average income as an American. This means that if in the US there were as many Starbucks as in China, relative to population and income, there would be only about 1,600 Starbucks cafes, not 13,000. Or put differently, Starbucks would have to have at least 7,000, not 850, outlets in China before reaching the same level of outlets relative to the population that can afford going there. And for these people, the cost of Starbucks coffee relative to their income is the same as for Americans.

See, all it took to figure out that the entire argument so far was bullshit is a few minutes on Google, and a pinch of logic.

Which Mr. Schiavenza clearly lacks, or else he wouldn’t have written this howler:

With the rise of e-commerce—and more frequent foreign travel—Chinese consumers have begun to feel that they’re paying too much for simple pleasures like a cup of coffee.

Never mind the fact that Mr. Schiavenza provides absolutely no evidence for this change in consumer opinion – other than his expat friend. What I would like to know is this: what on earth does e-commerce have to do with coffee? When is the last time you ordered your grande no-foam soy latte through Amazon? And how likely is it that your average globetrotting, coffee-sipping nouveau riche Chinese will spend time exploring cheaper coffee alternatives while in New York, London, Paris, or Frankfurt?

This is just a stupid argument.

But, there’s more.

Here’s where it gets tricky, and here is where the Atlantic article really went out of its way to make you a little bit dumber.

I’ll walk you through it.

Schiavenza writes:

Most cities in the country have coffee shops that provide a roughly similar cup of coffee—and similarly comfortable atmosphere—at much lower prices. How does Starbucks make it work?

I doubt this. In the original WSJ article there was a chart – also included in the Atlantic – that broke down the various cost factors for Starbucks’ coffee:

Notice how almost all these costs are outside the control of Starbucks? With the exception of the profit margin – 18% – I don’t see much room for significant cost reductions if you wanted to run a coffee store with similar atmosphere and quality coffee. Where would you cut, dear reader? The rent and store operating expenses? There goes the atmosphere. The raw materials? There goes the quality.

I really would love to see those places in Beijing and Shanghai with “roughly similar cup of coffee—and similarly comfortable atmosphere—at much lower prices.” Having lived in, and visited, a number of major cities in North America and Europe, I have found that if you want a really good cup of coffee in a nice atmosphere, you pay about the same as you do at Starbucks. You can get cheaper, but you’ll compromise either on the atmosphere or the quality of the coffee. I have had excellent coffee at highway rest stations in Germany, though you really can’t compare that to a well-run Starbucks in terms of atmosphere.

But what does our Atlantic writer provide as the real reason?

One major issue is culture.

Ah… yes… That mysterious Chinese culture. Of course. Let’s see how that goes:

Since the Chinese economy opened up to import products in the late 1970s, these goods acquired a certain cache with image-conscious consumers. “Traditionally foreign products were regarded as better-made, higher-status, and simply nicer,”

I may be going out on a limb here, but I don’t believe that back in the late 1970s the idea of Western products being of better quality than Chinese products was much of a stretch. Considering the Chinese had just gone through decades of social upheaval, wars, and communist mismanagement – it would have been shocking if Western products had not been of better quality. That’s not a weird Chinese culture thing, that’s an economic development thing. Countries with lower levels of economic development generally produce products of lower quality. That’s almost a tautology.

Why am I belaboring this point? Because I’m ticked off by the implicit presentation of the Chinese as stupid dupes. Wanting better products is not some weird Chinese cultural thing. It’s a universal human thing. You work hard for your money. You want to spend it on things that give you as much utility and pleasure as possible. Europeans are like that. Americans are like that. Well, except for those who ‘buy American’ out of principle. That’s just dumb.

In any case, let’s move on:

Fei Wang, a Washington, DC-based consultant who grew up in Wuhan, told me. “A person’s social standing was defined by the objects they own.”

Oh – fascinating. Those weird Chinese… defining their social standing by the objects they own. Amazing. Tell us more about those exotic strangers.

Far from acting as a deterrent, high prices actually enticed customers who wanted to show off their new affluence; put another way, purchasing a good like a cup of coffee at a premium was a good way to obtain “face” in business or personal relationships.

Ah… that mysterious Chinese concept of “face”. I’m kind of disappointed the scare quotes around the word weren’t amplified by including 面子 in brackets. Because in the US or Canada, nobody would even think about impressing a business partner or anyone else by inviting them to a fancy restaurant or coffee place. No, here, in our rational Western society, we don’t care about such superficiality at all.

And Starbucks had the good fortune of entering the country at a time when coffee drinking became fashionable among hip, young Chinese consumers.

What a coincidence. How fortunate for Starbucks they just happened to enter  the Chinese market when the Chinese started to take a fancy to coffee. What a lucky, lucky company.

Please excuse me while I smack my head on my desk.

There. Better.

Eventually, though, Chinese customers may decide that a latte is just a latte—and the no-name place down the street is more than good enough.


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3 Responses to Starbucks in China, or how reading the Atlantic can make you dumber

  1. ludefu says:

    Thank you for the revision of the Atlantic post. I was actually really puzzled when I read that the reason for the high price is logistics. Iv been in china many times and transportation there is incredible cheap and fast. As another person pointed out in a comment to the Atlantic: why would the coffee beans be cheaper for the shop down the street?

  2. dietwald says:

    Thank you for comment. The original WSJ article provides a good overview of the reasons for the high prices there.
    I’ve never been to China, unfortunately, but from everything I have read about the country, your comment regarding logistics costs make sense. And a company as experienced as Starbucks probably has the logistics down pat.

  3. I liked your article. A very good response with the facts and sources that the original article lacked and without a “mysterious Chinese culture” approach which made the former go so wrong.

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