Starbucks is to close nearly three quarters of its stores in Australia, it was revealed today. Chief Executive Officer Howard Schultz cited “challenges unique to the Australian market.'' for the reasons for the closure of 61 of its 84 sites. The decision to shut the cafes by August 3 is the first mass closure outside the US since an announcement that the company would close 600 U.S. outlets, eliminating as many as 12,000 jobs, earlier this month. It is believed that a European- style coffee culture, dominated by neighborhood cafes often selling stronger brews at lower prices is to blame for the closures. The 23 Australian stores spared are in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, the nation's three largest cities. Starbucks said Jason Ball, its store development manager, will be made managing director on Sept. 1. Schultz said: “We believe that this difficult, yet necessary, decision to close stores in Australia will help support the continued growth of our international business. “There are no other international markets that need to be addressed in this manner.'' The chain opened its first Australian store in July 2000 in Sydney's central business district, eventually expanding to the states of Queensland, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. Schultz, the 54-year-old founder and chairman, resumed the position of chief executive officer in January to revitalize Starbucks' cafes. He has slowed the pace at which stores are opened, introduced a loyalty-card program, and altered sandwich recipes as he tries to recapture the charm he says Starbucks lost amid a rapid expansion.