Starbucks caves in to refills, sort of

December 4th, 2010 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

To some people, Starbucks represents all that’s evil about the global economy. The corporation is ruthless and the branches are interchangeable and ubiquitous. However, one can understand the enmity while still appreciating the product. The beverage they sell is still the equal if not superior to that of any other coffee vendor, and in Japan, at least, it’s the only coffee shop chain that guarantees a totally smoke-free environment.

Make that to go

Starbucks’ brand image is based on snobbery to a certain extent, which is quite an accomplishment given how their establishments are literally everywhere. Much of this exclusivity is based on the idea that each frappucino or latte or mocha is special and hand-made. That exclusivity, however, has now been undermined with Starbucks’ One More Coffee policy.

If you buy a Coffee of the Day, in any size, you can receive a refill, either hot or cold, of the same size for only ¥100. All you have to do is show the cashier your receipt for the first coffee. Though Starbucks has had a free refill policy in the U.S. for a while now, in Japan it has always been more limited. The One More Coffee deal was first offered from January to April on an experimental basis, and then last summer for a limited time, probably to counter the McDonald’s threat.

Now they seem to have brought it back for good, or at least that’s what a cashier in Otemachi told us. It’s good all day for the day you bought the first coffee, and, even better, it’s good at any Starbucks; meaning, you can buy a first coffee at one branch and then get a refill later in the day at another one. There appears to be no other restrictions so, in theory, you can even give your receipt to a colleague or friend and they can enjoy the refill. Will this lead to a black market in second-hand receipts?

Yes, that sounds pretty kechi (cheap), we know; but that’s the sort of thought that comes to mind when a company like Starbucks breaks its self-imposed mold and does something unexpected like this. Some will say the deal is less than meets the eye since it doesn’t apply to specialty drinks, only drip coffee, but, for us specialty coffees don’t cut it. If you like coffee, you drink coffee; and you drink it black.

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8 Responses

  1. in my office, er, my local starbucks, this 100 yen refill offer has been consistently available, and yes it certainly does work if you give it to someone else to use. it is good only on the same day so not sure how much of a black market there would be though. It does give me a good idea for a flash mob — a bunch of people give their receipts to a bunch of homeless or other in-need folk, who en masse descend on a given outlet at the same time. That should try the good will of the staff and undermine the feeling of exclusivity on the part of the customers.

  2. That’s funny how you say “homeless or other in-need folk.” As if a cup of coffee will do them any good.

  3. They’ve been doing this for almost a year now…

  4. “The beverage they sell is still the equal if not superior to that of any other coffee vendor..”

    Give me a break! Among coffee fanatics, Starbucks is notorious for it’s over-roasted, bitter, sour espresso. After living in Rome for 5 years, I now can’t bear the taste of Starbucks coffee.

    It’s telling that after 10 AM, the overwhelming majority of Italians drink straight espresso – or machiato – which in Italy is rich, sweet and nutty. According to a Seattle Starbucks barista friend, he serves, at most, a dozen straight espressos a day, which is understandable considering that what comes out of those machines resembles battery acid more than it does espresso. Which in turn explains a comment from an Italian friend living in the States – a comment equally valid when directed towards the Japanese – he said, “you Americans don’t drink coffee, you drink coffee-flavored milk.” Starbucks espresso might be drinkable if diluted in 12 ounces of milk, but then, don’t kid yourself that what you’re drinking is coffee.

    I haven’t lived in Tokyo for a decade or so, but there must be plenty of specialty espresso places that deserve patronage for putting out a superior product.

    Here’s a little trivia question for ya: which European country hasn’t even one Starbucks outlet – that’s right kids – Italy.

  5. uh, the idea was not that it would help them, which it certainly wouldn’t. It was more a comment on the “exclusivity” mentioned in the original post and that this 100 refill offer — and the seemingly free transfer of it — is all well and good now, as long as it’s those same type of relatively well-heeled customers, but that tune would certainly change were less desirable (from Starbucks’ point of view, not mine) elements to take advantage of it.

  6. Not all Starbucks in Japan are smoke-free, many have smoking at their outside tables.

  7. I’m not a huge fan of Starbucks, but I will never forget the role that it played in introducing the concept of “non-smoking cafe” to Japan. (Trust me, before it came along, “coffee shop” was pretty much synonymous with “smokers’ paradise.”) For that reason alone, I’m extremely grateful.

    Anyway, why does anyone need more than one coffee in a day? I find that if it’s really GOOD coffee – which I wouldn’t normally expect from Starbucks – then I don’t need to be constantly sipping it all day long. For that, I prefer tea.

  8. I thought that the coffee and service in Starbucks in Japan was good but overpriced. Other coffee shops in Japan – next door to Starbucks -now offer lower-priced good coffee with refills so there is real competition for Starbucks.


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