- Starbucks has a new policy that allows people to hang out in stores and use the bathrooms without making any purchases.
- Starbucks is changing its policy to make the stores a more “warm and welcoming environment.”
- However, Starbucks customers increasingly crave convenience – not community.
People no longer need to order any food to hang out or use the bathroom at Starbucks.
“We want our stores to be the third place, a warm and welcoming environment where customers can gather and connect,” the company said in a statement this weekend. “Any customer is welcome to use Starbucks spaces, including our restrooms, cafes and patios, regardless of whether they make a purchase.”
The announcement comes after two black men were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks in April, while waiting for a business meeting. One of the men had asked to use the Starbucks location’s bathroom without having made a purchase.
It’s a decision that seems to run counter to every logical business theory. Starbucks makes money based on customers buying food and drinks – not people loitering on their laptops or popping in to use the bathroom.
In some ways, opening stores is in line with Starbucks’ founding theory. However, the fact that the chain has been forced to put its open-bathroom policy in writing shows the brand is in crisis.
Becoming the “third place”
Starbucks’ concept of itself as a “third place” has been baked into its DNA for years. Longtime CEO and current executive chairman Howard Schultz wanted Starbucks to be a place between home and work, where people could find community.
This community, in Schultz’s mind, is the real reason people visit Starbucks (and pay more for drinks). If Starbucks loses its ability to be the “third place,” it loses one of its main selling points.
However, many people of colour have argued that Starbucks never offered them that sense of community.
“While it appears to offer equal access, in reality, it serves the needs of only some,” Temple University professor Bryant Simon writes in his book “Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks.”
For example, Simon realised while researching his book that while he never had an issue asking for a bathroom key, he saw a number of black men questioned or denied when they requested access.
The new, open-store policy is supposed to fix this problem by setting the standard that everyone – customer or not – is allowed into any store, at any time. However, it may be too late for the company to fix the problem, as many customers have given up on finding community at Starbucks.
Communities and drive-thrus
Starbucks’ mission to become a community center may already be a lost cause. Roughly 80% of new Starbucks locations being built have a drive-thru – a means of ordering that isn’t conducive to building community or hanging around a location.
Increasingly, Starbucks customers seem to be visiting the chain for convenience, instead of some noble “third-place” mission. With the rise of drive-thrus and mobile orders, an increasing number of Starbucks customers are attempting to get their drinks to go, with as little human contact as possible.
“As our customer base has grown, sometimes our customer wants that third place experience, and sometimes they want convenience,” Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson told Business Insider in 2017. “We’re not sacrificing one for the other, but it is a delicate balance.”
Maintaining a consistent brand – especially a more upscale, community-based one – becomes more difficult when different customers demand different things.
Starbucks’ efforts following the arrests shows how seriously the chain is continuing to take its “third place” reputation. Yet, at the same time, the chain’s divergent goals – community and convenience – could be creating an identity crisis unrelated to the arrests.
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