Starbucks in Italy? An Italian customer experience perspective

Italian Starbucks

Starbucks is coming to Italy in February. You might think this isn’t a big deal but for the Italian market it really is! Italian’s are precious about their coffee and their drinking habits differ greatly to those of the US and UK. The whole customer experience is different, which is why the opening of Starbucks in Italy is so controversial…

First of all, it’s interesting to know that Starbucks has an ancient bond with Italy; originally, Starbucks sold only coffee beans, but after a journey to Italy, the owner had the idea to recreate and export “caffetteria-style shops”.

Italian coffee drinking behaviour

From an Italian point of view (Yes, I’m Italian), coffee is not just a drink: it’s a ritual, a chit chat with the barista, it’s the best end after a good meal, it’s the perfect “good morning”, it’s a pleasant and quick break, but above all, it has to be short, black, bitter and served in a small ceramic cup (very hot).

Typically, an Italian will enter the coffee shop, simply ask for a coffee (which is an espresso – this is the standard drink), stand up at the counter, drink the coffee which takes just a few minutes, then leave.

You can see that both the drink and the behaviour differ a lot from the typical Starbucks experience.

In this scenario, will Italian consumers appreciate Starbucks Americano, Latte or Frapuccino? Will they buy coffee served in the famous cardboard cup? How will they reply to the renowned question “stay in or takeaway”?

In Naples, the south of Italy, the “coffee ritual” is even stronger than in the north. There’s a popular tradition called “caffè sospeso”, literally translated as “pending coffee”. It’s rooted into the Naples’ working-class culture, and basically consists of having an espresso but paying for two, leaving one on the counter, ready for the next costumer, as a symbol of good luck and an act of “charity”.

Will the Italian consumers pay for a “frappucino sospeso” or a “pending latte”? What will happen?


Image taken from “La banda degli onesti”. Totò, a famous Italian comedian and actor, drinking a coffee at the counter.

Italy’s La Stampa newspaper wrote: “We thought we had everything in Italy, but it turns out we lacked one thing: American coffee”.

Coffee for Italians is part of their culture, their behaviour, a national identity and habit; and Starbucks knows it. Even more important, Starbucks have had to really know Italian customers before making the decision to open a branch in Italy. It’s no coincidence that the first Italian Starbucks will open in Milan, the most international city in Italy, heart of Italian business, fashion and a highly multicultural centre.

What are the opportunities and potential barriers of having Starbucks in Italy?

The opportunities

  • The company announced that they will promote Starbucks as a place for business meetings as well as a cozy spot where to relax; an intimate coffee shop in the heart of the business area of Milan, where you can work or sip a coffee with friends.
  • Free WIFI will be the main attraction for Italian customers. There aren’t many places in Milan where you can find free and fast WIFI.
  • A hi-tech + coffee formula. Technology will be the key differentiator for Italian Starbucks. Along with free WIFI, customers will have access to a “Starbucks digital network” streaming movies and tv shows.

Potential barriers

  • Deeply rooted coffee culture. Italian customers have a strong bond with their habits, particularly when it comes to coffee and food.
  • There are thousands of coffee shops, bars and ‘caffetterias’ in Milan where you can enjoy a high quality espresso with a snack (biscuits or a pastry) and where you can simply read a newspaper with a good cappuccino.
  • Starbucks is expensive compared to the Italian coffee prices. In Italy, one espresso costs 1€ or even less.
  • For most of the time, “having a coffee” for Italians, means having a quick break, standing up at the counter. Particularly in the afternoon or after lunch. It is not the long sit down break that is common in other countries.
  • It is not common for Italian business consumers to sit in a coffee shop and work on the laptop or meet in a public space.


A traditional bar-caffetteria in Milan – Bar Zucca. People drinking a coffee at the counter.

The “Starbucks Italian situation” is a great example of the importance of how understanding customers is crucial in order to offer an efficient and successful product.

Moving into the Italian market is a huge risk for Starbucks, however by first opening in Milan, they will be able to take advantage of the large tourist market. It is the least risky option for them and a gentle step into the Italian market to test their acceptance of the longer coffee drinking customer experience.

If you need to understand or test in other markets, we can help. Get in touch with Keep It Usable >