When America’s unofficial third place closes 400 locations

If Starbucks is an important third place for Americans to gather and interact, what happens when the company closes 400 stores because of COVID-19 and to focus more on drive-through and carry-out business?

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Photo by Abhinav Goswami on Pexels.com

Starbucks announced on Wednesday that it will close 400 of its roughly 10,000 locations in the U.S. and Canada over the next 18 months as the company projects to lose up to $3.2 billion in sales this quarter due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. It’s not exactly a retrenchment. The company plans to end this year with 300 more stores than when it started, even accounting for the closures—but that’s half of what the chain had originally been planning. About 40 to 50 of the new locations will only offer pickup or drive-through.

Starbucks typically closes about 100 stores every year due to leases expiring and market conditions. The decision to up that number signals that Starbucks expects the recovery from the current recession to extend far into the new year. The company did not list which locations it plans to shutter, though it did say that they would be in “high-social gathering locations” like campuses and malls. Shares for the company fell by 4 percent in midday trading as the news broke. “As we navigate through the COVID-19 crisis, we are accelerating our store transformation plans to address the realities of the current situation, while still providing a safe, familiar and convenient experience for our customers,” Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson said in a press release.

While nearly all of the company’s cafés have reopened in limited capacities without in-store seating, the twin health and economic crises continue to discourage consumers from spending and venturing out to public spaces. The shock to Starbuck’s business model has reportedly accelerated its shift to focusing on takeaway service, which it had already been planning to do before the pandemic. In November, the company opened its first Starbucks Pickup store at Penn Plaza in New York City, where customers order and pay through their phones. While Starbucks locations have long served as a “third place” where people could meet and relax, customers in recent years have been placing more and more orders for takeout, perhaps due to the company’s recent focus on mobile ordering. The company estimates that 80 percent of its orders at company-owned stores in the U.S. are to-go. Now that the virus has made people even less likely to dawdle at cafés for an extended period of time, Starbucks expects that percentage to rise.

The new stores will emphasize the use of Starbucks’ ordering app, Uber Eats, walk-up windows, and curbside pickup to facilitate social distancing. Some store layouts will also begin including pickup counters that exclusively cater to mobile orders and food delivery services. The company hopes that large U.S. cities will eventually host a mix of cafés and pickup locations that are located within walking distance of one another in order to reduce crowding.

For a long time, the presence of a Starbucks has denoted a particular status for an area or community. Will the loss of a Starbucks or even the shift from a place one can sit and gather to one that sends food and drinks out the doors and windows harm communities?

Even without COVID-19, this hints at the limited public realm Americans have where fast-food places are some of the popular places people can or will gather. Starbucks presented this possibility though as a private business they still aim to make money and will restrict certain behavior. As the article notes, this shift may have already been underway; I noted the busy Starbucks drive-through early this year on a rare work session at a local store.

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