Thursday, September 22, 2005



Week one observations

Starbucks is a corporate conglomerate coffee company with retail locations throughout the world. Using a formulaic interior design, Starbuck cafes have a similar look and feel from Los Angeles to Paris. In general, Starbucks outposts are a light mix of post industrial /high tech with a few “funky” café elements. The promise of the formula is that you will always feel at home in any location, never challenged—be it by a different ordering system or the ambient background music.

The local branch at Astor Place is where we made our observations. It is a large space divided into two levels, with high ceilings, and concrete floors. The main space (at street level) contains the display cases and counter. The floor has a central access path leading from the entrance directly to the counter. On both sides are clusters of tables, subdivided by smaller and less direct paths to side entrances. On the upper level, two steps up, are smaller spaces, also filled with small tables.

Typical customer behavior is: they enter the cafe, place their orders, then after a short wait, pick up their coffees. Some head for the exit at this point, taking their orders “to go.” Others pick up their drinks, spin around and head for the cream and suger station before heading out. A percentage of customers pick up their drinks, find seats and stay inside Starbucks. These are the customers we will be focusing on.

There seem to be two principal categories of patrons who stay to enjoy their coffees: the Laptoppers and the Studiers.

In general, the Laptoppers prefer the smaller of the table styles. They sit alone, with their laptops perched in front of them. Many place their cell phones on the table, with no coffee in sight. They seem to be rather entrenched, isolated and focused on the compuer screens, oblivious to their surroundings. The laptoppers seem to prize the upper level— we have not yet determined if this choice is based on the lack of disruptive foot traffic, or the availability of AC power.

The second group are the Studiers. Not surprising given the location’s proximity to NYU. This group also favors the smaller tables, but are not as solitary as the Laptoppers. It’s not unusual to see groups of two or three at one table. Their concentration is not nearly as intense as that of the Laptoppers; they often pause to take notes, chat with their tablemates, or check out the action in the café.

An even narrower customer category consists of people in conversation, or small mixed groups, who seem to move seamlessly between working or studying to conversing with their tablemates.

I asked customers about their experiences at Starbucks, and here are some of their reactions:

"I like that there's usually a spot open, and I can park my laptop and get a lot done."

"I like that I can hang out here and leave without smelling like a coffee roaster. I used to work in a cafe, and I never felt like I could get the coffee smell out of my hair.”

“I never feel bad about sitting in the same spot for hours. I get a cup of coffee, plug in and nobody bugs me." (Oops, was that a hint?)

"I kind of hate the way the area with the sugar and cream is always a mess. The honey is the worst!"

"The ordering part is easy, but the counter where you wait for your drink is always f’d up and crowded."

"It's a good place to get studying done. There's noise and stuff, the music and people talking, but it's never so bad that I can't do my thing."
Me: “And do you like Dylan?”
Customer: “Who?”

"Look at these shelves. Does anyone really buy gifts and stuff here? They should get rid of them and add more tables."
(Obviously, this guy’s not going to Stern.)


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