Trickling sales threaten to ground Starbucks' Joe

THE MAGAZINE, co-produced with Time, may not be sold in the coffee chain's shops much longer.

It's not nearly as great a societal loss as the demise of, say, The Saturday Evening Post, but if you had grown attached to Joe, the magazine co-produced by Starbucks and Time, you may be in for a disappointment.

Nearly five months after the third issue hit coffee shops nationwide, Starbucks is re-evaluating its brief foray into the publishing business. Although company officials say no final decision has been made, operators of half a dozen Starbucks locations say it's their understanding the quarterly publication is history.

"You here to write its obituary?" asked Scott Mowbray, managing editor of Time's Custom Publishing Division, which produced Joe.

As part of the evaluation process, officials at Time and Starbucks are considering revamping Joe, increasing the ratio of advertising to editorial space, and boosting the sales price to help cover costs. Starbucks officials have set no time frame for making a decision on the fate of Joe.

Starbucks launched Joe, named for an old slang word for coffee, in June, hoping the general-interest magazine would develop into another way to connect with customers. It sold for $2.95, only at Starbucks. The company set out to produce a thoughtful, stylish magazine to be read by generally well-off, computer-literate people as they sipped lattes.

Scott Ferris, vice president for business development and marketing at Starbucks, said the magazine was designed to enhance the historical coffeehouse experience of discussing literature and art.

But a more basic problem got in the way of that experience: where to position the magazine in the store so that people would buy it. It was a problem the company didn't solve.

Joe was an extension of Chief Executive Officer Howard Schultz's desire to find new ways to connect with customers and make Starbucks stores an integral place in people's lives.

The company approached several publishers before contacting Time in 1998.

"We both shared a vision," said Mowbray. "There was genuine interest in building a cultural product."

Starbucks listened to Time officials when they advised that quality writers and corporate advertisers wouldn't be attracted to a magazine designed to boost a company's image. As a result, Starbucks' presence in Joe is almost subliminal.

Joe attracted poets, photographers, artists, essayists and short-story writers eager for a new outlet for their skills.

What it didn't attract was readers. Customers thumbed through the pages and tended to like what they saw, but they chose not to get back in line to buy the magazine.

The magazine was given three issues to succeed, and Starbucks officials decided to re-evaluate after the November issue didn't sell up to expectations.

"We set a short goal," said Mowbray. "It was reasonable from a business standpoint, but publications take some time to find the readers. To do this, you need time - six to eight issues to get a magazine off the ground.

"What we did was interesting, fun, noble. But the bottom line was, `Could you make a business of selling a magazine?' "

For Starbucks, that question remains unanswered. If Joe returns, said Ferris, readers and advertisers will have to foot more of the bill.

Robert T. Nelson's phone message number is 206-464-2996. His e-mail address is