Caribou blues

Customers who stopped in at their local Caribou Coffee this morning might have gotten an unexpected surprise: The doors were locked and the lights were off.

The company closed 80 stores over the weekend and will convert 88 stores to its sister brand Peet’s Coffee & Tea in the next year and a half.

Minneapolis-based Caribou Coffee is the nation’s second-largest coffee chain. Now, it will have only 468 Caribou locations in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas, North Carolina and Denver. There won’t be any more Caribou Coffee in the Chicago area, which was the company’s second-largest market, and the company is also leaving Michigan and leaving its almost two dozen stores in Washington, D.C., among other places.

The move is linked to a strategy by the German company Joh. A. Benckiser, which bought and privatized Caribou Coffee last year, then bought Peet’s Coffee & Tea in a separate deal. Last Friday (April 12), Benckiser announced plans to buy the European coffee brand D.E. Master Blenders 1753, according to The New York Times:

The deal is one of the largest takeovers so far this year in Europe, and is the latest coffee acquisition for Benckiser, an investment vehicle for the wealthy Reimann family of Germany, which also owns well-known brands like Jimmy Choo shoes and Sally Hansen nail polish.

But the biggest lesson to come out of the move isn’t the business strategy involved in re-focusing a brand after a major acquisition. It’s simpler than that: Don’t leave  your customers in the dark when you’re taking away their favorite shop.

The news came without warning and without much explanation, and it came through employees before it came from the company itself. In a report on the closings on April 8, Chicago’s WGN said simply, “A spokesperson wouldn’t return our phone calls or emails.”

President and CEO Mike Tattersfield did release a brief statement on April 8, as reported by the Detroit Free Press:

“Over the past few months, we at Caribou have revisited our business strategy, including closely evaluating our performance by market to make decisions that best position us for long-term growth.”

Since the company didn’t publish a list of the affected locations, reporters had to deduce which local stores were closing by contacting employees at each store. WGN interviewed an employee who said Caribou only gave him nine days’ notice before the store was to close.

Meanwhile, whoever handles the company’s Twitter and Facebook is now responding individually to customers groaning about the store closings. Shortly after Caribou released a vague press release about the closings, Carol Tice criticized the brand’s social media strategy on Forbes.com, saying that they should have posted more about why the decision was necessary. What we’re seeing now seems to be an improvement, even if some customers are still confused. Maybe the company hired a new PR specialist?

People are highly emotional about their coffee — especially, perhaps, because the company’s conversational, upbeat brand strategy makes for loyal customers and employees. As Mary Schmich said in the Chicago Tribune:

Caribou customers have been in mourning, as if for a pet or a friend, grief that has been met with some mutters of, “It’s only coffee.”

Caribou Coffee napkin photo by Anjum, Flickr Creative Commons.

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