updated 10/14/2004 8:46:08 PM ET 2004-10-15T00:46:08

There are so few Starbucks Corp. stores in the world that customers are sometimes forced to journey more than two blocks to find one, the coffee retailer's chief executive bemoaned Thursday.

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To alleviate that problem, Starbucks plans to more than triple the number of its worldwide outlets to 30,000, with half of those in the United States. That's up from a previous goal of 25,000 stores worldwide, including 10,000 U.S. locations.

A big focus of that growth will be in America's suburbs and small towns, chief executive Orin Smith said, where people don't want to leave their cars to get their caffeine. Many of the new outlets will be drive-throughs.

Starbucks currently has about 8,500 stores, including about 6,100 in this country. The company has not set a target date for the 30,000 stores.

"Despite what you hear now that we must be nearing saturation in North America, that is not true," Smith told analysts.

"We know from our studies that the reason our most frequent users -- and as well our most infrequent users -- don't use us more is because there's not enough of us and we're not convenient enough," he said.

"Americans don't walk, so if you have to go more than two blocks, they don't go."

Walking could get tougher for Starbucks' customers, though. The company announced plans Thursday to launch an indulgent, cocoa-butter-packed chocolate drink called Chantico in January. It would cram 390 calories -- nearly the equivalent of two chocolate bars -- into a 6-ounce cup.

Smith said Starbucks believes it can open more stores in suburbs, in towns with as few as 10,000 residents, in lower-income metropolitan areas and even along the nation's highways.

Starbucks also thinks there is room for new stores close to the many it already has in big cities. The company also is expanding its presence in grocery stores, airports and other locations by using licensing deals.

Smith said the company is now seeing younger, less affluent, less educated and more ethnically diverse customers. Another characteristic is they are impatient.

Although Starbucks has worked to improve the speed with which it serves people, Smith said the company continues to lose customers because its lines are too long. It's working on that.

Starbucks has long said it sees much of its future opportunity in international markets. But Smith said the company has stepped back from expanding rapidly into new many countries and is trying to focus on a few countries where it sees a lot of potential. These include China -- which the company said could ultimately be one of its largest markets -- as well as Russia, Brazil and India.

The company also said it sees the potential to more than double its presence in Canada, which currently has 438 stores but could reach 1,000 locations.

Analyst Kristine Koerber with JMP Securities said the stepped-up expansion in the United States makes sense, especially given the younger demographic Starbucks is attracting. But she said the company has plenty of overseas potential, and is smart to hone in on growing markets such as China.

Starbucks shares rose 14 cents to close at $47.79 on the Nasdaq Stock Market.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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