Earlier this week, Starbucks made a hysterical, ridiculous, and plain ol’ stupid decision to allow people to loiter in their stores and use their restrooms at will, no purchase necessary.
Starbucks stated in their press release that “everyone who visits Starbucks is a customer.” Allow me to retort: HAHAHAHAHAHA. No, they aren’t. Customers are defined as people who purchase goods and services. People who sit on your couches, use your free wifi, and dirty up your bathrooms? Not customers. And anybody who has worked in retail for more than five minutes will agree with this.
Your humble author worked retail for well over a decade. I started in high school and college at a musical instrument store, working there for almost four years before I went on to work for Verizon, T-Mobile, Men’s Wearhouse, and Cricket in store and district leadership roles from 2001 to 2010. I can tell you, without qualification, that loitering customers are always bad news.
They are almost always there to steal. And while Starbucks might not have a ton of inventory on the floor, there is a commodity in any Starbucks that is incredibly limited—space. There’s only so many seats available, and when those seats are taken by people who have no interest in spending money in your store, then you are restricting access for people who do want to spend money in your store. That’s bad for business.
The other commodity that is offered by Starbucks is atmosphere. Before this policy was enacted, you could be relatively certain that Starbucks would be a quiet, calm setting, filled with professionals and/or SAHMs in yoga pants. Not anymore. Do I expect Starbucks to be taken over by rowdy “teens” immediately? Well…yeah, I kinda do. And that’s double bad for business.
Why? Consumers often visit Starbucks for reasons that have nothing to do with coffee. I have personally conducted all sorts of business in Starbucks over the years, due to the fact that Autotrader didn’t have regional offices in most of the markets I visited—I’ve interviewed people there, I’ve had 1:1 meetings with employees, and I’ve even written posts for this blog and others, all while sitting in a seat at Starbucks. But I’ve never, ever dreamed of doing it for free. I’ve always purchased at least a drink for myself and my colleagues, and sometimes multiple drinks if I was there for long enough—and I don’t even drink coffee. But I’m no longer going to be able to assume that Starbucks is a safe place to conduct business, and for a lot of traveling business professionals like myself, that will be reason enough to seek out somewhere else to go.
Why? Well, let’s be honest here. I have no interest in conducting business in a hangout for the destitute, homeless, or troublesome. I also have zero confidence in the ability of Starbucks employees to be able to add the necessary skills of landlord, policeman, and therapist to their barista duties.
And while Starbucks says that they have outlined specific guidelines for how to handle troublesome “customers,” the media frenzy that hit that store in Philadelphia ensures that any Starbucks employee will think three times before enforcing said guidelines. Keep in mind, those “customers” in Philly were asked by management to either make a purchase or leave, and they refused. Thirty minutes later, we had a “national conversation.”
Unfortunately, Starbucks felt that they had to make a decision that was based on something that had absolutely nothing to do with actual business and everything to do with perception—a perception formed largely by people who had no interest in ever buying a single Americano at their stores.
It’s symptomatic of a larger issue in American society today, where Social Justice Warriors can sit behind a keyboard and threaten billion-dollar businesses simply because they are offended. Never mind that the guys in Philly were actually loitering and that they refused to either make a purchase or leave. Rather than deal with a situation like that again, Starbucks decided they’d rather offend actual customers.
Stupid decision, guys.