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“A relentless appetite for innovation” – Alex Rayner on 25 years of Starbucks in the UK

In an exclusive World Coffee Portal interview marking 25 years of Starbucks in the UK –and its first store in the MENA region – Alex Rayner, Vice President and General Manager UK, Switzerland and Austria at Starbucks, discusses the Seattle-based coffee chain’s contribution to British coffee culture and how the business continues to deliver innovation for the UK’s ever-curious coffee consumers

(Left) Starbucks partners at the 20,000th Starbucks store to open outside North America, an outlet in Oldham, UK; (Right) Alex Rayner, Vice President and General Manager, UK, Switzerland and Austria | Photo credit: Rent My Eyes/Starbucks

The UK’s first Starbucks store opened its doors on London’s Kings Road 25 years ago this month. Since then, the coffee chain has expanded to more than 1,100 UK locations and hugely influenced the course of British coffee culture – including being the first major UK coffee chain to introduce drive-thu and cold brew.
A quarter of a century later, Starbucks continues to make waves in the UK market and in September 2023 opened its 20,000th store outside of North America in Oldham, Manchester.
Today, Starbucks UK operations are led by Alex Rayner, whose extensive retail experience includes senior roles Marks & Spencer, Bodyshop and Waterstones. Joining Starbucks in 2017 as Regional Director of Operations for the UK, Rayner is now Vice President and General Manager, UK, Switzerland and Austria.

 Starbucks partners outside the first store to open in the UK, on King’s Road, London, in 1998 Photo credit: Starbucks

What is your first memory of Starbucks in the UK?
I remember visiting Starbucks in the early 2000s and being taken aback by the atmosphere in the stores. It was clear that the baristas were having real fun and that infectious happiness was being passed on to the customers. I remember wishing that my then workplace had the same vibe.
Tell us about your career journey with Starbucks since joining the company in 2017
My career with Starbucks started by leading a turnaround in central London. I remembered how I felt when I first fell in love with what Starbucks had to offer and I tried to inspire that in our stores and in our partners across London. understanding and experiencing the role that our baristas play in creating the Third Place, the challenges that the job presents, and how we in the Support Centre can make their lives easier and enable and empower them to focus on that special customer connection were all key aspects.
After nine months, I was offered the role of Vice President, General Manager for the UK market and I had the incredible opportunity of transforming the entire UK business. Since then, I’ve never looked back and enjoyed every new challenge and opportunity. Just this month we’ve celebrated 25 years in the UK – a fantastic milestone to be part of.

“Today, what coffee shop doesn’t offer a range of cold coffees or their own take on something autumnal in the vein of Pumpkin Spice?”

What have been your key focuses and lessons learned during this time?
The overall focus for me has been working as a team and that comes in several different forms. For one thing, it’s important to set a clear vision and objectives and to ensure that teams believe that they can be achieved, no matter how difficult, through working together. That means learning to fail fast and get back up. If we believe we can achieve then there’s no reason to stay down.
It also means accountability. If we are reliant on the team around us, then we need to see accountability and humility when someone gets something wrong. And that applies at all levels. That doesn’t mean punishing where we’ve made mistakes, but it does mean putting our hand up, acknowledging we let people down, and apologising. On the flip side, it also means recognising and celebrating success.
I believe this instills pride and purpose among our partners. It means that the best and the brightest want to work for us and are recognised when they are successful and it means that everyone shares in the vision of one-team working and achieving our goals.
How would you characterise Starbucks’ role in the development of UK coffee shop culture over the last 25 years?
A relentless appetite for innovation has defined Starbucks over the past 25 years. We’ve developed new store formats and new customer experiences – we were the first major coffee chain to introduce the drive-thru format to the UK back in 2008 – as well as introducing new flavours and beverages. Cold brew, Pumpkin Spice Latte and this year Oleato – all of them Starbucks innovations or developments that we’ve brought to the market here.
Today, what coffee shop doesn’t offer a range of cold coffees, or perhaps their own take on something Autumnal in the vein of Pumpkin Spice? We’ve tried new things, some of which have worked, some of which haven’t, but I think a lot of those successful ideas can be seen in UK coffee culture more broadly.
Importantly, we’ve reacted to what our customers want. Cold drinks are proving more popular – we respond by innovating and expanding that product range. There’s a reason that the first UK-exclusive drink we introduced, to help celebrate our 25th anniversary here, was the Clotted Cream Fudge Cold Brew.
Starbucks has brought its pioneering spirit in coffee craft and experience and we’re proud to be one player in such a thriving, competitive sector that offers customers such fantastic choice.

“Convenience is central to our investment programmes, as is ensuring that our traditional cafés work for a multi-channel offering”

How is Starbucks responding to the cost-of-living crisis and rising inflation in the UK market?
It is clear that everyone is finding it a challenge at the moment. The cost of doing business is going up with inflation and increased energy and trading costs, at the same time squeezes on the cost of living mean that customers have less disposable income.
While the macro environment continues to present challenges, we remain focused on what we can control: we’ve worked hard to meet our customers where they are, innovating to provide the experience and product customers want and investing in our people. This has helped us to retain a loyal customer base who continue to find the value in the joy that a little treat or pick-me-up from their favourite coffee shop, or their favourite barista, can deliver.
Combine that with a sensible, sustainable growth strategy and we’ve maintained double-digit growth this year and are well on our way to meeting our target of opening 100 new stores this financial year.

Smaller format, digitally-forward stores and mixed-format drive-thrus are increasingly popularity in the UK | Photo credit: Rent My Eyes/Starbucks

More recently Starbucks has focused on digital transactions, smaller-format stores and drive-thru in the UK. What has driven this approach and what does it say about how the UK branded coffee shop market is evolving?
We evolve our business to meet changing customer requirements. Smaller format, digitally-forward stores and mixed-format drive-thrus are proving more convenient and more popular. There’s a reason that the 20,000th store outside North America, which we were privileged to open in Oldham earlier this month, happened to be a mixed-format drive-thru.
Convenience is central to our investment programmes, as is ensuring that our traditional cafés work for a multi-channel offering. This includes handover points for customers that are purchasing via delivery or collection through the Starbucks App that do not interfere with the experience of customers choosing to dine in.
We have always said that we strive to meet our customers where they are, and the evolution of our business reflects that commitment.
75% of Starbucks beverages sold in the US are now cold. What is the proportion in the UK market and what is the growth potential for the category?
Since the introduction of cold brew and cold beverages to the UK we have seen their popularity take off. We’re not quite at the same level as the US – partly because there are very large parts of the USA that remain a lot warmer than the UK throughout the year – but certainly we see that younger generations especially enjoy a cold beverage.
This has meant we have adapted our stores for hot and cold stations so as not to interrupt the partner workflow as they move around. These might seem like minor changes but amending the workspace makes a huge difference to our partners. 
We’ve made no secret of the fact that we see it as a key growth area and driver for us now and in the future.   
Alongside growth in digital and drive-thru channels, what are Starbucks’ priorities in the UK market?
Our priorities are the same as they have ever been – to expand our business sustainably and responsibly while making sure that we provide the same brilliant experience built on the value of human connection to all our customers.
To achieve that, we’re committed to celebrating and supporting our partners so that they are empowered, able and enthusiastic to deliver that experience. We’ve introduced new forums to ensure that all partners are heard, we’ve delivered targeted training to support partners in their career development, and we’ve expanded our provision of mental health and general wellbeing support, alongside our best-in-class benefits.

This year also marks the 10th year of our Barista Champions competition, open to all Green Apron partners in EMEA and designed to celebrate the very best and brightest talent in our stores, and provide a little friendly competition!
The other priority is sustainability and that remains hugely important to the business. We’ve certified our first 18 Greener Stores in the UK, we continue to fund initiatives to encourage reusable cup use, reduce food waste and to research innovations to make the dairy industry more sustainable; and our business growth efforts have focused on renovating and reusing properties, rather than rebuilding.    
What excites me is the potential in the UK. With the rising popularity of small format and drive-thru stores and plenty of appetite for beverage innovation, there’s still an awful lot of untapped market to which we can bring the Starbucks Experience, here’s to the next 25 years!

Alex Rayner is Vice President and General manager UK, Switzerland and Austria at Starbucks

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