Notice Anything; Different? Starbucks Is Testing Whether Jacksonville Consumers Notice the Switch from Whole to 2% Milk in Their Products. It's a Change the Coffee Brewer Might Implement Nationwide

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Byline: DIANA MIDDLETON

Consumers might not be able to taste the difference, but those daily frothy Starbucks cappuccinos just got a bit lighter.

The Seattle-based coffee giant might permanently swap out whole milk for 2 percent milk in its espresso-laced drink recipes that use milk as a base. Jacksonville is one of four areas the brewer is testing the menu change; the others are Orange County, Calif.; London, Ontario, Canada; and the state of Oregon. The pilot program, which started the last week of January, means lattes, cappuccinos and mochas will all be made with milk that is 2 percent fat - even without customers specifically requesting it.

The switch is merely a response to consumer demand, said Brandon Borrman, a Starbucks spokesman, who noted that Starbucks studied domestic dairy purchasing patterns before rolling out the low-fat milk pilot program.

"Two percent milk is an increasing percentage of those sales," he said. "This is where our customers are interested in going."

According to market research from Mintel International Group, a consumer research firm, 59.2 percent of 2005 milk sales were in the low-fat and nonfat category, compared to 28.8 percent of total sales for whole milk.

Two percent milk is a smart choice for Starbucks, which must satisfy a variety of palates, analysts say.

"Most people notice little difference in taste with 2 percent milk since it can taste as rich as whole milk," said Marcia Mogelonsky, a senior analyst with Mintel. "Customers can still make a good-tasting choice without feeling like they're overdoing it."

Meanwhile, the caloric difference is roughly 30 calories for both the tall and grande lattes when compared with versions made with whole milk, Borrman said.

That's good news for the consumers who obsess over their snacks' nutritional content.

In a 2006 survey commissioned by the Food Marketing Institute, 51 percent of respondents said when scanning a product's nutritional label, fat content was the most important, up from 47 percent in 2005, said Bill Greer, director of communications for the Food Marketing Institute.

The far-flung, cross-continent testing grounds were also strategically chosen for their unique tastes.

"We wanted to accomplish a good cross section of customer preferences," Borrman said. "Jacksonville was picked because its customers rank high in whole milk usage."

Meanwhile, Borrman noted that Orange County residents were more likely to tinge their caffeine with skim or soy milks, while Oregon is a "mature espresso market," where espresso is already a prevalent coffee beverage.

The point of the test is to see how different palates react to the taste - but the switch might end up saving Starbucks a lot of money if it is rolled out chainwide. …