Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz likes to claim his stores operate as “third places,” a term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg. But, do they really fill this role?
Now that so many street corners seem to have a Starbucks, has the international chain truly become that “place on the corner” where people connect? In fact, Oldenburg dismisses the Starbucks coffee shop as an “imitation”, debilitated by the company’s pursuit of that other quintessentially American obsession, security, and the sterile, predictable environment it produces. “With its overriding concern for safety,” Oldenburg told Bryant Simon, author of Everything But the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks, “it can’t achieve the kind of connections I had in mind.”
Walk into a Starbucks today, and you may not notice much connection going on: some customers come in chatty groups, but many others arrive in search of nothing more than a place to open their laptops and get some work done; in effect, using Starbucks not as a third but a second place — their workplace. Most simply grab their coffee and go, never pausing to avail themselves of the chairs and couches provided, while others prefer to keep human interaction to an absolute minimum by using the drive-through window, a resoundingly un-urban feature Starbucks introduced in 1994.
Starbucks’ ongoing retooling and experimentation suggests that Schultz, for all he talks about his company’s resurrection of the “third place”, has yet to hear a sufficient amount of political banter and schoolchildren’s chatter in his stores. Starbucks’ enormous scale and need to service the American demand for frictionless convenience contradicts its mission to replicate the appeal of continental coffee-house culture: how much of a neighbourhood-rooted venue for chance encounter can you provide when you have to run thousands and thousands of them, making sure they all do more-or-less the same thing?
Maybe you could make a case either way. In favor, coffee shops serve as third places in numerous cultures and their presence almost everywhere means Americans have a common place outside their private homes and workplaces to get together. Yet, Starbucks present a common “McDonaldized” experience (it may be coffee but it is still fast food and often dependent on a car-driven society) that is primarily controlled by corporate interests. Perhaps only in a society that is so privatized (emphasis on single-family homes, cars, moving away from urban problems, individualism, etc.) could a chain coffee store even make the case that it is about community.