Starbucks sucks. Their coffee is burnt and awful, their teas are lame supermarket stuff, their food is hyper-expensive, their music is very loud and their employees are encouraged to act like drunks. Probably the only good food they offer is bagels, which they always keep in short supply. Their new attempt at offering coffee crystals only underscores their cluelessness.
So why do I, and so many others still go there? Is there anything that "indie" cafes can learn from Starbucks?
Yes. Starbucks does several things right that even their obnoxious coffee and most doltish employees cannot completely undermine.
First, they provide a functional environment. Their solid chairs, tough tables, decent lighting and available electrical outlets are reliably pervasive. If I can't have high cafe culture (Vienna, Budapest etc), then let me do my thing. People who go to Starbucks to read, write, or work on a laptop can do those things for the most part.
Second, the employees, despite yipping like monkeys half the time, are forced to be friendly and upbeat. In the Philadelphia area, where I have witnessed workers at Borders and Blockbuster Video inventing cruel names for customers, where I have been given filthy silverware at Bertucci's, and where I have seen trash strewn all over the floor at other cafe, frankly the idea of employees aspiring even lamely to professionalism and being nice even if in a dippy Starbucks way is refreshing. I don't ask for much, but customer service in this region is horrific, which makes Starbucks look all the better.
Third, Starbucks often is situated where parking is free. There is a trend now for business to set up shop inside little towns and on Main streets, where parking is expensive. This is a mistake. Starbucks is everywhere. With them, I don't have to risk getting a ticket.
Fourth, in Washington state whence Starbucks originated, they have serious competition. Not so in most other places. They learned things by competing with equals that gives them the edge over relatively weak indie cafes. It seems every indie cafe reinvents the wheel and gets it wrong half the time. I've seen indie cafes done horribly wrong, like incompetently-made "artsy" chair that were painful, or idiot owners who smoked in the cafe, and I've seen it done really well. Starbucks is the Model T of cafes: One size fits all.
In summary, even though Starbucks is a clueless company that makes awful coffee, and in fact it is a union-busting company by the way, they do a few key things right.