Is Starbucks Killing the British Tea Hour?

ByABC News
January 26, 2007, 3:25 PM

Jan. 28, 2007 — -- During the early stages of the Starbucks revolution, there was an illustration in the New Yorker which aptly described the phenomenon. It showed two display tables in a bookstore, books piled on, and shoppers passing along quite indifferently. One read "second hand," the other "latte-stained."

This is the generation of the coffee shop, of the extra shot, of the chai to go, of the rise of the paper cup and the paper-cup sleeve. In every neighborhood, residents see coffee shops emerging, and the trend is more global than we think.

Britain, the country of the "cuppa tea" and afternoon tea parties, is now the world's second-largest market for coffee chains. Of the over 2,700 American-style coffee bars in the United Kingdom, Starbucks is of course in the lead with 530 stores, closely followed by Britsh-owned chains Costa Coffee and Caffé Nerro.

If analysts agree that the trend started in the '90s, it has infiltrated the British lifestyle in the past five years, finding grounds to develop where tea ceremonies couldn't. Coffee shops have opened in bookstores and even clothing stores like Esprit and high-end department stores like Selfridges, offering drinks, snacks and wireless Web surfing.

For tea consultant Ellen Easton, the tradition of tea is still there, but it just couldn't follow.

"Due to time constraints," she explains, "the traditions of home entertaining have now been reserved for weekends, special occasions and business functions."

To retail analyst Jeffrey Young, of London-based Allegra Strategies, the multiplication of coffee shops is driven by a newfound inclination to indulge ourselves, to take ME-time, but take it quick.

"Spending two pounds (approx. $3.90) per day on coffee is quite a chunk of change at the end of the year. Yet it is an indulgence we are willing to spend on," he explains.

Even businesses like the real estate brokerage Foxtons put coffee shops right inside their offices. Foxtons started in 2002 in its London Park Lane agency. Today, in almost all of its agencies, potential clients discuss the first stage of negotiations with their agents over coffee.

"If you're sharing important information, going through a divorce or committing your personal savings, it's nice to do it in a relaxed way, where you're not as easily overheard," says Foxtons representative Rosie Nagle.