Starbucks in a globalized world: An ethnographic snapshot in London

By contributor Sean Carey

Starbucks Cup. Flickr/catatronic

“It’ll never catch on over here – the British don’t like all this ‘have a nice day’ and that kind of stuff, especially when everyone knows that the workers are on the minimum wage and don’t really mean it,” said a wealthy friend of mine who works in ICT in London and a frequent visitor to coffee shops.

He was referring to a policy introduced on March 14 to make Starbucks appear friendlier. Baristas are now instructed to ask a customer for their forename (first name) so that it can be written on the side of the paper cup and called out when the drink is ready for collection. This is all part of the Seattle-based coffee company’s attempt to revitalize its relationship with European consumers as part of a “transformation agenda” that has proved successful in North America.

Is the U.K. ready for this packaged friendliness that is a routine part of customer service in Starbucks outlets in the U.S. and Canada?

In a globalized world, concepts and practices that work in one location can be successfully introduced to another if there appears to be a “goodness of fit.” But my friend’s comment appears to match my observation that many middle-class people in the U.K. are wary of emotional exuberance or expressions of intimacy directed at strangers. The feeling is that authenticity in greetings is paramount and really only suitable only for those related by kinship or through long-standing friendship – anything else is regarded with suspicion.

Prompted by my friend’s comment, I set out for myself to catch a glimpse of how the “British” are responding to the new practice. I visited my local branch of Starbucks, a mini “lifeworld.”

Ethnomethodologically-inclined cultural geographer Eric Laurier and his colleagues, drawing on the work of German philosopher Jurgen Habermas and others, have pointed out that the modern coffee shop,  a “third place” between work and home,  is a “lifeworld…where common codes of conduct are adhered to that are informal and yet… there are values specific to them as places of that type which guide norms of behaviour for their customers” (2001:5).

I began my observations in Starbucks at 3:20 PM and finished at 4:00 PM on a Tuesday in late March. In order to assume the role of participant observer, I ordered a medium-sized cappuccino at the counter. Unfortunately, the branch had run out of the relevant paper cups. The male barista asked me if putting the coffee in a mug would be okay. I accepted his offer but then realized too late that I would miss out on the new “name -on -the -paper cup” ritual. Never mind, I consoled myself, these sorts of things happen when conducting ethnographic observation.

I sat opposite the serving counter in the middle of the cafe so I could closely observe the nature and pace of transactions. Here are a few of the things I noticed.

  • There were three baristas on duty, two female and one male.
  • At 3:20 PM there were 18 customers seated inside the shop, of whom 15 were female and three were male. In addition, there were two female customers sitting at a table outside.
  • At 4:00 PM there were eight customers, of whom six were female and two were male. Only two of the original sets of customers at 3:20 PM were still in the café.
  • Twenty customers entered the shop in total – of these 12 wanted items to take away. The baristas kept an open and sociable demeanour throughout their encounters. All customers who were asked their name provided it without hesitation and no one questioned its purpose. The practice already appeared to be a routinized form of behaviour.

I was intrigued to hear what the baristas thought about interacting with customers by asking their names and writing them on cups. I took my now empty Starbucks embossed mug to the counter and asked the nearest barista how the new consumer experiment of personalized cups was shaping up.

“It’s not been too bad really,” she smiled. “Some boys did think that we were hitting on them because they didn’t know the new policy, which was kind of amusing. But most people haven’t minded at all. On the other hand, since we started doing it last Wednesday we’ve had three or four people who just refused to give their name. And one guy actually started shouting which was a bit alarming.”

Since my snapshot research experience, I continue to wonder if the disaffected would continue to frequent Starbucks or whether they would seek out alternative, branded outlets or independent coffee shops where their personal identity – or at least that part of it which is attached to a first name – is neither probed nor revealed.

One thing is certain from what we know about the pursuit of operating profit: a newly introduced consumer practice that has serious adverse effects on the bottom line of a global brand will not last long.

It is complicated for a global corporation if a practice works in one location but not in another. What to do? I guess that’s what CEOs are paid to sort out. But if the new “name on the paper” ritual introduced to the U.K. by Starbucks succeeds in attracting and retaining a significant number of new customers, it will raise a question from an anthropological point of view in terms of relationship marketing: will other branded chains and independent coffee outlets be persuaded to follow suit or will they maintain existing practices as a conscious point of differentiation?

5 thoughts on “Starbucks in a globalized world: An ethnographic snapshot in London

  1. Fascinating stuff and one that gets an emotive response from me! I HATE it! Its plastic and in all honesty I think “What do you care – what my name is?!” Just can the false smile and insincere bonhomie and give me my damn coffee! Grrr!

    Perhaps other more open and less conservative people will go for it. I can see that regular customers would then become possibly greeted by name by the more savvy baristas and build a rapport that way. Kinda smart. But at the cost of alienating people like myself – of course I have no idea if my sentiments reflect those of the UK mainstream of my age group. Time will tell!


  2. Really interesting read, and a really interesting experiment! Some people are a still a little hesitant to provide names and that’s perfectly fine… but this practice has really helped break down some boundries… I’ve served some customers every morning for a number of years, I know when they’re going on holiday, I have their drink waiting for them and I notice when they’ve had a haircut… and the know the same about me – but we never knew each others names! It’s surprising to think I knew these people on such an intimate level without that piece of information, but there we go!

    Thanks again for this, really interesting and a great read!


  3. Sean Carey

    Thank you Adrian and Starbucks Dave for your comments. I’d just like to pick up a point that Dave makes about knowing quite a lot about people but not necessarily knowing their names. In the postmodern world of London (and its hinterland) where friendships are created and maintained through mobile devices, it’s often the case that people know one another’s forenames but haven’t a clue what their surnames are. Which I guess is one reason that Starbucks has introduced the name on the paper cup as a device that attaches the forename with the face.It creates ‘depth’ to the relationship.


  4. Pingback: “Occupy economic anthropology” by BILL MAURER and an anthropology roundup « Erkan's Field Diary

  5. Barbara

    I loved this article!
    I am a total coffee shop person.
    I think putting names on the cups humanises the experience, especially in this digital world where everything is computerised.
    We are fighting for space and recognition and little things like written names on cups makes people feel special!
    For me, it is even more so because if I were to ever have a franchise, it would be Starbucks in Zimbabwe.
    Thanks so much for the article…Barbara.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s