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A Starbucks on every corner?

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How many Starbucks outlets are there in the Forbidden City? Since 2007, the answer has been zero. The café in the corner of the imperial palace was forced to close following criticism that the brand was encroaching on China’s heritage (criticism that was initiated by an international visitor, apparently).

But while the Forbidden City is off-limits, the remainder of China’s cities are fair game for the global coffeehouse. The Party secretary of one city, Xi’an, is even lobbying for more.

“Xi’an only has a little over 40 Starbucks at the moment. This definitely isn’t enough. I think 400 would be more appropriate,” Wang Yongkang was reported to have said last week.

21CN Business Herald believes Wang was tapping a popular notion that the prevalence of the brand in a city reflects the area’s economic might, and so the newspaper set out to determine if Xi’an really did deserve that much coffee.

Its findings showed that the city with the most Starbucks stores is Shanghai with 539, followed (not very closely) by Beijing at 231, Hangzhou at 125 and Shenzhen at 109. Xi’an ranked in tenth place with 40.

But is it an accurate reflection of economic might? Shenzhen’s GDP is greater than Hangzhou’s, so the Starbucks indicator seems as weak as some of its coffee. Per capita disposable income has a greater correlation, but that measure kets Guangzhou snatch fourth place from Shenzhen. Nor is the number of tourist visits to a city and the average spending of those tourists a perfect match with Starbucks store numbers either.

21CN also challenges the mayor’s call for more Starbucks in Xi’an. It says the city’s share of Starbucks is about right for its economic condition, having considered a number of factors like the ones above in determining Xi’an’s commercial vitality. If Xi’an wants to drink more coffee, it needs to strengthen its economy from all sides, the newspaper suggests.

But as a rough rule of thumb the number of Starbucks could be a new way to measure economic strength. Last year the chain announced plans to have 5,000 stores in China by 2021. Where it chooses to open next may now become a bigger bone of contention among the country’s competitive mayors.


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