July 12, 2013 at 2:22 PM ET
Sink into a comfortable chair under soft lighting, plug in your laptop and hop onto the coffee shop’s free wi-fi network. Think you’re in Starbucks? Think again: This is the new face of Dunkin’ Donuts.
For years, the chain has styled itself as the anti-Starbucks, even selling a T-shirt on its website that reads, “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drink Starbucks.” But customers will notice some decidedly Starbucks-like elements when they step into a Dunkin’ Donuts.
The bright orange and pink colors of the brand’s logo will still be present, but mellowed by brown and tan shades on the walls and floors, softer lighting and upholstered seats.
“The hottest trend in the restaurant business right now is fast casual,” said Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst at market research firm the NPD Group. The success of chains like Panera Bread and Chipotle Mexican Grill have other restaurant companies scrambling to emulate their practices.
“In specialty coffee, you want to have a third-place element [a place to hang out that's not home or work]. I do think a lot of their reimaging program plays into that idea,” said R.J. Hottovy, senior restaurant analyst at Morningstar.
Dunkin’ Donuts is taking a page not just from Starbucks’ playbook, but from the entire fast food market. Within the past two years, McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King have all added more sophisticated, grown-up elements to their decor and the look of their restaurants.
If the results of the big burger chains are any indication, the overhaul could be a good investment for franchisees. Their brand image will probably get an initial bump. According to market YouGov BrandIndex market research, all three burger chains registered better consumer impressions after debuting new looks for their restaurants, although the lift was temporary for all three.
McDonald’s says introducing its new design gives stores in the U.S. a 6 percent incremental sales lift, and Wendy’s said made-over stores generate 20 percent higher sales.
With its makeover, Dunkin’ is trying to break out of the breakfast category it traditionally has been associated with and get customers to think of it as an all-day destination. “The modernized design incorporates many new features to create a warm environment for guests who seek a longer, more relaxed visit to Dunkin’ Donuts as part of their day,” the company said in a release.
“People are eating and drinking around the clock now and working wherever they have to,” said Todd Hooper, retail strategist at consulting firm Kurt Salmon. Fast food and coffee shops are shifting, he said, “going from just a kitchen to being an out-of-home den or office or conference room.”
Kathy Hayden, foodservice analyst at Mintel, said Dunkin’ Donuts also is positioning itself to capitalize on two workplace trends: As more people telecommute, they’re looking for places where they can get out of the house and still get work done. And a more mobile work force means more demand for places that can serve as ersatz locations for business meetings.
“Offering wi-fi is not enough. You need to have a welcoming atmosphere,” she said.
Adding traditional coffeehouse touches shouldn’t detract from Dunkin’s brand image in customers’ minds, Hooper said. “I think you can still be an anti-Starbucks person but sit in a comfy chair.”