“Personalized” Uniformity — The Starbucks Experience

Collaborative exercise with Saumya Kharbanda

We’ve all come to know exactly what to expect when we walk into a Starbucks. The dark green and black color scheme, natural wood accents, and mixture of handwritten signs and bold imagery.

The experience is canned in a way that feels at once fake and familiar. Even the sounds are recognizable— the roar of the grinding beans, the hiss of milk being steamed, the hustle and bustle of baristas moving around behind a low counter, the sound of names being called aloud as customers meander up to the counter to collect their signature white cup. Customers even seem to move through the labyrinth of tables and display cases up to the register despite the awkward spatial arrangement.

The exposed activity seems almost intentionally frenetic. Occasionally a discreet door, which otherwise blends seamlessly into the black subway tiled backsplash, swings open. In these moments, the invisible backstage is exposed. Just as the front-stage activity seems almost a show, this behind the scenes space appears intentionally hidden. Maybe because there’s not much of interest that happens there?

Compared to a neighborhood cafe or restaurant, where products are made with care and the labor of love is displayed out in the open, Starbucks products feels artificially controlled and presented. The entire experience, from the visual environment to the sounds and interactions seems to fall off into the background. For better or worse, there are no charming activities, endearing interactions, or engaging elements to distract from other activities.

And yet, amidst this cookie-cutter routine, there is an attempt at capturing the “authentic” coffee drinking experience. Artisanal looking signs describe the local origins of the Starbucks coffee, using words like “exotice, rare, and exquisite.” The signature white paper cups, which are distributed to customers regardless of whether they are walking out the door or sitting down at one of the many tables, are scribed with the customer’s name and personalized drink order. Though understandable, this feigned personal touch seems unnecessary considering the otherwise anonymous experience.

Starbucks offers customers a predictable service — a clean space, a variety of seating areas, and sufficient snacks and beverages. But, all the rest feels superfluous because even the smoke and mirrors aren’t enough to make you forget you’re drinking mediocre coffee out of a paper cup.