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For Starbucks, Mug Buzz Can't Be Bad for Business

Buffs obsessed with the coffee cups go to great lengths, and expense, for their collections.

August 01, 2004|Dawn Wotapka | Times Staff Writer

Like so many collectors, Leila Schutz can't shake the memory of the one that got away.

It was a late-'90s Minneapolis-St. Paul, with a rendition of the Walker Art Center's "Spoonbridge and Cherry" sculpture. Schutz was willing to trade seven of her own treasures for it, including an Oman and a Saudi Arabia. The sacrifice would have been worth it, she said recently, because Minneapolis would have made her "feel complete."

When the deal fell apart -- the man she met online who was willing to part with the plum told her it had shattered -- she was devastated. Could she, she asked in desperation, have the pieces?

"I figured that was as close as I was ever going to get," recalled Schutz, an English teacher at Carson High School in Carson.

The answer was no, and she has searched for it ever since. She sends random e-mails to people who live in the Twin Cities and hasn't abandoned the idea of placing a classified ad offering a $1,000 bounty.

A grand for a coffee mug?

For Starbucks Corp., city mugs, as they're called, are revenue generators just like the plastic tumblers, espresso machines and chocolate-covered graham crackers that compete for customers' attention in more than 8,100 stores worldwide.

For devotees like Schutz, the mugs are obsessions. She owns 270. The most she has paid is about $200 -- "a bargain" -- for a New Orleans with a Bourbon Street sign that was hand-delivered to her.

"I can't walk by a Starbucks without looking" to see whether a new city has been introduced, she said as she enjoyed a grande mocha Frappuccino with whipped cream at a Starbucks in Torrance.

The company didn't intend to create a fad -- not that it's complaining. The mug buzz is good for business. As collectors scour outlets for new issues, they no doubt also buy a few cups of joe.

The inaugural city mug was an oversize Pike Place in 1995, honoring the first Starbucks store, which opened in 1971 in Seattle's Pike Place Market.

"From there, it just kind of took off," said Lara Stark, Starbucks' serveware product manager.

Stores in other cities demanded the same treatment. The company responded with its black-and-white Icon series of mugs -- more than 40 (Starbucks isn't sure of the total, which is a source of keen debate among aficionados) with cities' names and landmarks. A Los Angeles mug has palm trees; Philadelphia, the Liberty Bell. Icons were supposed to be offered for about 14 months, but stores in some cities quickly sold out.

The Collage series, with colorfully decorated images of landmarks made for about 30 cities, was introduced in 1998. (This remains the least popular, collectors say, because the designs are too busy and too '80s.) The Skyline series, featuring line drawings of 48 skylines, followed in 2002. Unlike with some landmarks, no one trademarks a skyline.

In all, there have been four series, which is fine by Schutz.

"If there's too many, you stop caring," she said. "The excitement is gone."

A 50-year-old mother of three, Schutz didn't think much about that first Los Angeles city mug, other than that she liked the look of it. Then she bought a Calgary, which was shipped erroneously to a store in L.A. When she discovered a San Diego in 1996, she was hooked.

The most recent series is this year's Destination, celebrating Starbucks' top 25 markets, ranked by revenue and store count. Each mug boasts four snapshots; Los Angeles, for example, shows City Hall, the Santa Monica pier, the Queen Mary and the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

All but two of the 25 have been produced. Austin and Phoenix are works in progress.

"Seattle is easy. L.A. is easy," product manager Stark said. "You go to Phoenix and you're like, 'A cactus. What do I do?' "

The Los Angeles mug in the Destination series, unveiled in late May, can be hard to find. Chalk that up to avid collectors and EBay, the online auction house, where mugs often fetch far more than their retail price of about $10 -- sometimes hundreds of dollars more.

In fact, early last year, this reporter sold a rare New York City (the one with the yellow taxicabs) for more than $200, enough to buy textbooks for an entire semester of graduate school.

On EBay, the most valuable mugs are the ones fans say weren't supposed to be sold: prototypes, those with spelling errors and with landmarks the company didn't have permission to copy. Starbucks denies that such mugs exist.

"That's rubbish," said Michael Madigan, a collector whose website includes 360-degree snapshots of many of his 259 mugs.

Among them is the Minneapolis-St. Paul he once considered trading with Schutz -- and that did not, in fact, shatter; in the end, he couldn't part with it.

"I have felt bad about it since," said Madigan, 39, a public relations specialist for a building company in Tokyo. "Someday I hope I can repay that particular karmic debt to Leila."

Schutz isn't that angry but doubts he can. He "crushed my hopes," she said.

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