Starbucks Kicks Computer Customers Out, Covers Outlets, Kills Their Brand

Not that much surprises me anymore when it comes to branding these days. After all, we are living in the era of “packaging innovation” where it’s no longer enough to measure a beer’s temperature by touch, people need color changing labels to tell them what cold feels like.

But, I read some news today from Starbucks that truly had me shaking my head. The brand that created global success by defining itself as more than just a coffee shop, but rather a total experience; a place where you can curl up on a big comfortable sofa to read a book or connect a laptop to bang out that novel you’ve been writing for the past decade is now kicking people out.

For many many years, Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, famously said he wanted Starbucks to be that “third place between home and work — an extension of people’s front porch, or people’s home office.”

Well, now it seems, Schultz wants to everyone to leave.

Jim Romenesko’s Starbucks Gossip site reported this week that many New York Starbucks have been covering up their electrical outlets in an attempt to keep the all-day patrons away. An inside tipster told Romenesko:

I will tell you that the NY Metro leadership team has stated they are against covering the outlets because it is a passive aggressive way to deal with the issue. However, in extreme cases, they have approved this action because (and let’s be real here) some people just cannot be reasoned with

If you are one of those people who uses Starbucks as their office, sits in a store for 8+ hours a day, putting all your files on a table, using a separate chair for your laptop case/ suitcase enjoying unlimited free refills with your Starbucks card, asking for cups of water and refuse to to move until you are good and ready all for the $1.85 you pay as “rent,” then perhaps your actions will answer your questions [about covering the outlets].

The Wall Street Journal recently explained the trend of coffee shop rethinking the “come on in and camp out” model:

As idle workers fill coffee-shop tables — nursing a single cup, if that, and surfing the Web for hours — and as shop owners struggle to stay in business, a decade-old love affair between coffee shops and laptop-wielding customers is fading. In some places, customers just get cold looks, but in a growing number of small coffee shops, firm restrictions on laptop use have been imposed and electric outlets have been locked. The laptop backlash may predate the recession, but the recession clearly has accelerated it.

Why This Is Bad Branding

Now, I can certainly understand the desire to create table turnover within your coffee shop. After all, that’s how money is made, right?

But, when your entire brand has been defined for decades as an “extension of people’s front porch, home or office,” and when you designed your stores with the express purpose of making people comfortable with big plush chairs and providing free Wifi to keep people there for hours and hours and then you suddenly have a problem with people hanging out for hours and hours, there seems to be something amiss with your brand strategy.

And, I have to wonder is this wise in the midst of the big QSR push to offer free Wifi? McDonalds has seen great success transforming into McCafes, especially with work-from-home moms who can trot the kiddies out onto the playground while they work on their laptops and refill their Diet Cokes. Even Taco Bell is following the free Wifi model now. According to Gizmodo:

Taco Bell has teamed up with Indoor Direct to bring in-store WiFi and a specially branded TV network to the chain. Diners will apparently be encouraged to interact with content running on the network, with enticements to download free music, receive opt-in text messages, and engage in social media campaigns. Sounds like the perfect opportunity to resurrect that pot-stirring little Chihuahua.

Here’s why it works for QSRs versus the current Starbucks operation. McDonald’s has the playgrounds for the kiddies and Taco Bell (and others) have a long list of menu items that can keep people spending all day long.

When you work from home (like I do) you can easily spend days on end without actually seeing or interacting with another person. Working in restaurants and coffee shops gives people the chance to get out of the house and engage with humanity again. But, places like Starbucks – with their limited menu of sugary snacks – are not catering to the all-day customer. There are a few neighborhood coffee shops I use when I want to get out of the house. The lovely Inman Perk in Atlanta’s Old 4th Ward, Dancing Goats in Decatur and Urban Grounds in Avondale. Every one of these coffee shops offers sandwiches, quiches, panini, and other delicious foods that carry computer customers from the morning coffee through lunch and even into dinner.

If Starbucks wants to maintain its image as an extension of our homes and offices and still make money, they should expand their menu, not cover up outlets.

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