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Why Starbucks In China Is So Expensive

Starbucks in China is expensive, but they are not just selling fancy lattes, funky teas, and crappy coffee, they are selling what the Chinese really want.

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“The Chinese people, they know nothing about coffee, all they know is that they look rich drinking it,” a Taiwanese owner of a small cafe in Jiangsu Taizhou once told me.

This sentiment was echoed later on when I asked a Chinese girl hanging out in Starbucks why she thinks this cafe chain has become so popular in her country: “People come here,” she began, “because it is expensive and lux . .. lux . . .”

“Luxury?” I helped out.

“Yes, luxury,” she continued.

CCTV, China’s national television network, recently launched another of its propaganda campaigns against yet another foreign brand that has become hugely popular in China: Starbucks. The report intended to spark something that has been dubbed the “Starbucks Pricing Controversy,” and compared the price of a latte at Starbucks in China with those in other countries around the world.

From Wiebo:

“An insider exposed that the cost of materials for every cup of latte is less than 4 yuan, while the sale price in China reaches as high as many tens of yuan!”

“The Price of a 354ml Medium Cup Latte — At a Starbucks in Beijing, the selling price for a 354ml cafe latte: 27 yuan RMB; at a Starbucks in London, UK, the selling price for a 354ml cafe latte: 24.25 yuan RMB; at a Starbucks in Chicago, USA, the selling price for a 354ml cafe latte: 19.98 yuan RMB; at a Starbucks in Mumbai, India, the selling price for a 354ml cafe latte: 14.6 yuan RMB.”

The report, basically, was true: Starbucks in China is more expensive than pretty much anywhere else in the world. But it completely missed the point:

In China, Starbucks, and many other cafe chains like them, don’t just sling caffeinated beverages, they provide a luxury service for middle and upper class consumers; they sell class consciousness, status. The fact that they are expensive is one of their biggest selling points.

There is a large sect of Chinese society that is ready and willing to pay for price tags. There is a value of status here that extends far beyond the goods and services being purchased, whether it be expensive gymnastics classes for children or dropping thousands of dollars for a license plate with an auspicious arrangement of numbers on it.

“There’s also the possibility that the high prices may give the coffee shop more cachet by making it seem like a venue for more affluent customers,” Jing Daily reported.

If people in China want cheap coffee and tea they can go to a 90°, Take Away Cafe, or one of the hundreds of other working/ student class cafes that pack cities throughout the country. When people go to Starbucks they are looking for something else other than fancy, internationalized drinks.

It is a well known fact that Starbucks is expensive, and this isn’t a commercially inhibiting factor, it’s one of the chain’s best marketing strategies. Starbucks doesn’t just sell coffee in China, they sell status. It’s the same rule for just about every other company marketing its good and services towards China’s moneyed classes: luxury items in China are far more expensive than in the West for no other reason than the fact that this country has a rather large, new rich consumer class which desires the status symbols to separate themselves from the masses.

The people inside a Chinese Starbucks are the haves: they have the money, they have the power to be there. Getting a double mocha latte whatever here is a symbol of something far greater than a drink.

As Felix Gervais wrote at Why Customer Service in China is Different Than You May Expect:

It might sound paradoxical, but it’s because most rich-class goods and services are not about the intrinsic value, but about the experience and the image. Rich folks don’t care about how soft the fabric of their $450 Italian designer shirt is, or the improved drivability of their luxury car, or in the aforementioned case, the quality of the concert. They care about how awesome they will look, and the relationships with other rich people they can foster through buying all that.

From a Weibo user quoted by Tea Leaf Nation:

“If you buy the goods it means that you have the ability and will to pay the price, and you think that the price for Starbucks coffee is right.”

As put by Beijing Cream:

You shouldn’t play the lute for a cow, nor should you speak common sense to it. CCTV, every few months, will unfurl one of these “investigations” to remind its reviewers that we live in a world of haves and have-nots. Yes, Starbucks coffee is expensive. Yes, so are Apple products (CCTV went after Apple in March, even eliciting an apology). And what of it? It’s market economics, the same calculated, cold type that Deng Xiaoping enacted and that businessmen and politicians have been exploiting for decades to make themselves wealthy. But heavens forbid CCTV try to talk — or tweet — about that.

So it’s now official, confirmed by China’s state sponsored media: Starbucks is a place for rich yuppies with money to waste, which is exactly what so many people in this country are striving to be. What the CCTV attack on Starbucks successfully accomplished was cementing the chain’s reputation as an elite luxury establishment that not every plebeian can afford: exactly.


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Filed under: Articles, China, Culture and Society, Food, Status

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3722 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

6 comments… add one

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  • Tristanbul October 24, 2013, 12:04 pm

    It is definitely a symbol of status. For the same reason my colleagues in Korea would buy a cup of Starbucks in the morning, and “drink” that single coffee for the 8 or 9 hour workday. At least, the cup was on display at their desk for the entire day. On the other hand, if they bought a cheap beverage from the convenience store, it would be consumed and tossed in an hour or two. There is no status to be gained from drinking knock-off brands.

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    • Wade Shepard October 24, 2013, 12:37 pm

      Definitely. What’s interesting is that there are plenty of Chinese cafe chains — some replicating the Starbucks style while others are more of a Chinese style — that pretty much charge the same price, if not more, than Starbucks. It’s the fact that these place are expensive that make them for the elite, and that’s what desirable about them. Really, does anyone think Starbucks really has good coffee?

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      • HK JOHN November 1, 2013, 9:33 pm

        i think this strategy of selling “status” will not last long… it’s normal for Asians to buy “status” but after a while that fell good status will be lost when everyone starts having Starbucks…the key it’s to market to the ELITE…the problem ,Starbucks is no FERRARI…let’s see what happen in a few years…

      • Wade Shepard November 1, 2013, 9:38 pm

        This is true, Starbucks offers middle class status. The truly wealthy people go to the coffee/ tea houses that are actually more expensive. Status is an ever shifting metric.

  • Alex Saad January 9, 2014, 8:12 pm

    The same concept applies to pretty much any other retail venue. During my time living in Shanghai, some of my friends would invite me to much more expensive coffee houses. It wasn’t about the coffee, it was about the decor, ambiance, and its exclusivity. In Shanghai its really hard to find a Starbucks that its not super crowded, so we often went to more expensive places just to find a seat. Its more of a real estate thing.

    Additionally, in China Starbucks have quickly become the go-to place for scheduling meetings. Its much cheaper than renting a room at a restaurant (yes, you can rent your own dinning room in restaurants in Shanghai) plus its a lot fancier than meeting at the local dumpling place.

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