Starbucks Korea overdid the merch and offered a toxic gift
Starbucks in Korea once seemed to be more about the swag than the coffee — cups, mugs, coasters, umbrellas, hoodies, cabin bags, camping chairs, teddy bears and a whole line of BTS merch.
Coffee, at times, was beside the point. Reports suggest that some enthusiasts would buy coffee just to get points for the gift, ditching the drinks altogether.
That started to change recently after the coffee chain tried to foist toxic travel bags upon the customers and as some customers find that the excessive marketing has ruined the whole experience.
The Summer Carry Bag, which was first offered in May to customers who purchased 17 drinks, was found in late July to contain formaldehyde, a carcinogen, above legal limits for clothing — no legal limit has been set for bags.
Starbucks Korea has admitted to the contamination and has offered replacements for the toxic bags or 30,000-won gift vouchers. In the exchange, customers get a desk organizer, a wireless charger and paper clips.
The bags were manufactured by Keiley, a Seoul-based company, in China. Tmise, a Seoul-based stationery maker, will be supplying the replacement goods. Only the paper clips will be made in China.
Civic groups are still outraged.
The Seoul YMCA has been condemning the cafe franchise for its return procedure. Customers have to carry the bags themselves to the nearest Starbucks branch, with the bags being stacked at the cafes until collected by the company and sent to be discarded.
"Starbucks needs to come up with plans to return the Summer Carry Bags in a safe and faster way, along with compensation plans that doesn't force customers to use Starbucks," the civic group said in a statement on July 28.
Customers are worried that the process is less than safe.
"I went to return my Summer Carry Bag right after I saw the announcement, but I wasn't happy with having to carry something that contains formaldehyde so close to myself all the way to the cafe," said Jin Yeon-su, an office worker living in Gwanak District, southern Seoul. "When I handed the bag to the barista, it was kept on the cafe counter for a while and later stashed in a storage room, so that also made me wonder if it was safe since it was kept close to food and other cafe supplies."
One academic argues that quality control is key, especially when there is a big fan base for the brand keeping an eye on what they do.
"Starbucks should have been more responsible and careful when examining the giveaway bags, especially during times when people show high interest in issues such as their health and the environment," said Lee Eun-hee, a consumer studies professor at Inha University. "The issue also shows that consumers have high expectations and standards for Starbucks, and acknowledging it had a lack of awareness and providing proper compensation would be ideal for the future brand image of the company."
Starbucks Korea promised to improve its quality control by making its product inspection process more strict. The company has also been under fire for paper straws that customers claim taste like foul chemicals, eventually pulling them from its branches and changing the production method.
Although Starbucks merchandise was once a huge obsession for Koreans, the trend is dying out as customers question the safety of the products and frequent product releases.
"When Starbucks used to only put out merchandise during special holiday seasons, I always waited in long lines in front of the cafe before it opened because I was genuinely excited to collect the rare cups," said Chung Ju-eun, a 28-year-old living in Seoul. "Now it seems as if they release new products every week, and I've just lost interest because its always the same looking bags, mugs and cold cups just in different colors."
The coffee franchise used to release new products only on special holidays, such as the cherry blossom season in the spring, Halloween or Christmas. But it has been pumping out new products more frequently, about once or twice a week.
Its Summer Merchandise Collection of cups and tumblers was available for purchase starting July 26. It comes very close to the sale of its Upcycle Collection of bags, containers and small pouches made of recycled materials, available starting July 22.
The To-go Green collection, which includes a green canvas bag, mugs and a tumbler, started selling on July 19. The sale was closely followed by products in collaboration with Line Friends, a character brand, which was available starting July 15.
Emart bought an additional 17.5 percent of Starbucks from Starbucks Coffee International in July last year, taking its stake to 67.5 percent. The remaining 32.5 percent is owned by the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation.
Since the acquisition of additional shares, Emart has been using the cafe as a marketing and branding tool, and pumping out more merchandise as a result. Its 45.6-percent-owned SSG.com has been selling Starbucks goods, including versions of the toxic carry bag not available at Starbucks retail outlets.
Shinsegae Live Shopping, owned 47.8 percent by Emart, exclusively gave out Starbucks-branded umbrellas, canvas bags and lunch boxes to customers who bought products on its homeshopping channels more than three times in June.
BY LEE TAE-HEE [firstname.lastname@example.org]