The Starbucks Principles

Hey you squatters! I'm coming over!

The First Starbucks Principle: If you create a free and open public benefit, the use of which is contingent on mutually understood conditions of fairness and reasonableness, eventually the utility of the benefit will be destroyed by individuals who refuse to be either fair or reasonable.

The Second Starbucks Principle: Once this occurs, there will necessarily  be rules and enforcement, conflict leading to consensus and a new social norm, or the elimination of the benefit.

Starbucks is in the midst of the First Starbucks Principle, but the Second is on the way. The nice, absurdly expensive coffee shops that created a culture where coffee-lovers could drink their lattes at leisure while working at their laptops or perusing  books and newspapers, are being choked to death by arrogant and cheapskate squatters who stake out the tables and remain for hours on end, often driving out customers who just want to sit down briefly and sip.

I had read about Starbucks’ New York City shops covering up outlets at the store, limiting the squatters to the battery storage limits of their laptops, a pretty mild reform. Then, last week, I saw the problem up close: a companion and I purchased coffee at a Starbucks clone, Caribou Coffee, and found that every table was occupied by one squatter with a laptop. Out of eight tables, only one had a cup or food of any kind. We had to go outside and find a bench; I guarantee that Caribou lost some business, because I would have purchased another drink.

The ethics-free logic of these selfish slugs is this: “They let me do this, so it’s OK to do it—even though it is inconsiderate, even though it harms the business supplying me free office space, even though, eventually, the second Starbucks Principle guarantees that the conduct of people like me will ruin this benefit for everyone.” Thus they join the people who hog public tennis courts, those who become gluttons at  All You Can Eat buffets, and the boors who feel that if something is free, you are a fool not to take more of it than you need so that the establishment is forced to limit it or charge for it. These are people who are immune to behaving like they live in a community, and who feel no duty to compromise their convenience and welfare for strangers. There are too many of them, and too few of us.

I have used a table at Starbucks for quite a while after my coffee cup had been emptied, and as soon as there was someone looking for a table, I called them over and gave them mine. Silly me: I assumed that was the custom, since it is logical, polite, and fair. Nope.

Which is where the conflict comes in. I am calling on all Starbucks customers who find all the tables occupied to go ahead and sit down at one occupied by a lone, cupless squatter, fixing him or her with a relentless stare. That’s what I am going to do; I have behaved similarly in airport food courts, when solo and fully-fed individuals were holding down tables for four. The exchange typically goes like this:

“Pardon me, I’m sitting here.”

“Go ahead. So am I.”

“I didn’t invite you to sit down.”

“This establishment didn’t invite you to live here, either. I have a legitimate use for the table; I just bought something to drink. You are abusing the privilege. Tell you what: if you buy something right now, I’ll leave. Otherwise, I’m staying, and you can do what you want.”

I think we may be able to establish an ethical culture at Starbucks that will benefit everyone. All it will take is a little courage, a little audacity, a little discipline, and some good old fashioned shaming. That’s how cultures get fixed, and community benefits are preserved.

You don’t want to mess with the Starbucks Principles.

16 thoughts on “The Starbucks Principles

  1. Economists have long known the “First Starbucks principle” by another name: the tragedy of the commons. When people are free to graze their cattle on the town commons they’ll destroy it through overgrazing, since they have no incentive to preserve it (if they did others would overgraze it).

  2. The so-called Tragedy of the Commons has been widely misinterpreted, and justifiably criticized on numerous occasions. I would argue that Jack’s First Starbucks Principle may appear to be consistent with it, but it actually isn’t, for several reasons.

    Starbucks isn’t a public resource. And within bounds of reason, it isn’t a finite one, either (seems like everywhere you look a new one just opened). Besides, Starbucks is exempt from the flawed TOC theory for the precise reason that as an organization, it can set its own rules and policies and let the market decide whether those policies are agreeable. Starbucks essentially created its own problem (I would argue the problem was foreseeable) by… well, if not actively ENcouraging, certainly not DIScouraging the squatters. They are now taking corrective action.

    People will accept some remarkable social and ethical conventions as long as the rules are understood and mutually beneficial. Perhaps the best example of this is slugging, a ride-share program popular in the metropolitan District of Columbia. The rules are quite clear and rarely abused (examples: no money changes hands, no one talks unless the driver initiates conversation). And while government now encourages it in many locations, the protocols for slugging were completely organic. Another example is that use of cell phones while commuting on Long Island Railroad Trains is STRONGLY discouraged – not by the railroad, but by fellow passengers. Use your phone, and at minimum your fellow passengers will glare at you. If you don’t get the hint, your breach of etiquette will be coldly pointed out.

    So this kind of stuff can work. Starbucks’ dilemma is one of its own making, and I can’t say that I think the so-called squatters are necessarily at fault here. For a long time, Starbucks either actively or passively encouraged them to do precisely that. Now it must change the behavior it created. Covering outlets is a reasonable tactic. So, too, would be making it clear that the company’s policy is that any open seat at any table is available to anyone who wants it, regardless of who’s already there. Getting surrounded by chattering mocha drinkers is probably the best way to send the isolationist web surfer packing.

  3. Your argument would hold more weight if (1) starbucks didn’t have limited seating space, (2) they didn’t hold themselves out as a public resource. Of course Starbucks can change how they act, but they only have to do so because of the tragedy of the commons. Whether the issue is self inflicted (kind of like a ruling body allowing everyone to graze…) is completely immaterial to the description of the problem.

    • I disagree. Starbucks isn’t a public resource and never held itself out to be. They hold themselves out as a place to buy coffee, and they offer a few attractive amenities in order to attract customers. The TOC analogy also fails on two other points – first being that Starbucks isn’t the only place one can buy a cuppa joe and grab free wireless, let alone buy a cuppa joe. Second, the only victim of failure here, if any, would be Starbucks’ bottom line. The damage to those customers whose tushes fail to find contact with a seat is limited to annoyance – an annoyance the free market will happily address.

      • Starbucks most definitely has held their free wireless out as a public resource. Starbucks and their coffee are not free resources, but no one has been talking about the company as a whole.

        That starbucks isn’t the only place with coffee is completely irrelevant to all points. That it is not the only place with free wireless also doesn’t detract from the point. That there are multiple commons doesn’t alleviate the problem, so long as there are more people with desire to use the resources then there is availability of the resources.

        The failure is of free usage of the commons. They try to open it up, but they have to shut it down or it becomes unusable.

        Your references to free market are also silly in reference to the problem. They have no bearing whatsoever on the issue.

        • Of course they have bearing. The entire idea of the commons is based on the premise that those who are not landowners must share in the commons – an area set aside as a shared resource. Whether a village had one or more is immaterial; ultimately, the landlord controlled everything else, hence, the commons was limited to whatever the landlord deemed appropriate. It was, by nature limited.

          That is absolutely NOT the case here. If people find the Starbucks experience unworthy, other options either already exist or will exist when the market senses the opportunity. It could be something as simple as Fred’s timestamp coding (not a bad idea, Fred).

          This ain’t a zero sum game, and the whole TOC theory is rife with imperfection anyway.

  4. If the attraction of free wifi is the root of the problem, they could implement a technological fix: Print a code on the bottom of each receipt that enables the wifi connection for the next 30-60 minutes or for a time in proportion to the amount of the purchase.
    Customers are fungible. As long as each seat generates a sale often enough, the company’s bottom line is protected. For the vast majority of customers it would make little difference.

    (If this isn’t already patented and they patent the idea, you saw it here first!)

  5. I find the picture amusing, Jack, since both tables actually have a purchased commodity on them. Maybe long-since consumed, but it’s not typical of what you or I see there. Mostly it’s squatters, like you say.

    Wouldn’t it be even better, though, to perhaps be nicer and less confrontational when joining a squatter at a table? Golden Rule and all that? I’d prefer to be asked nicely, if I were actually clueless enough to not offer it up to a newer customer like you do…

    • I didn’t say I wasn’t nice when I sat down. But I’m going to be firm with the resulting protest. Do I want people to be polite to me when I’m being a pig headed, selfish jerk? No. I want them to get through to me, so I’ll stop.

  6. Since when are people this clueless? I remember signs at restaurants that clearly state that the tables are for the paying customers to eat their food. At many of the restaurants I go to, if you don’t order anything, you are assessed a $5 charge for the water and chips/bread/pretzels/peanuts available.

    When you go to a restaurant with tables, you expect to be able to use the tables for the purpose of eating. That is part of the service you are paying the restaurant. If noncustomers are hogging the tables, the noncustomers are depriving you of part of the service you paid for. If the tables are full of paying customers, then the restaurant has done it, although it may be unavoidable.

    I always find it funny that people feel it is worse to confront someone who is being rude than it is to be rude.

    “When someone is wrong, you should tell them that they are wrong. They may not listen, but at least the truth is out.”
    -Paraphrased from Babylon 5.

  7. There are plenty of fixes that Starbucks (or others) can implement. One of my peeves about any establishment is the lack of “individual seating”. Chipotle actually is on my good side here because they generally have a counter space and bolted in stools so that if I take 1 spot, the rest of the counter space is available for communal sitting. Movable chairs generally get pushed outward and people use more than they need.

    In general, if I go to any other fast food restaurant by myself, I have no choice but to use a 4-seat table. I sometimes feel bad, but that’s how they set it up.

    Back to my point….

    The coffee shops could redesign their stores to maximize the use of space. They could create a designated space for the squatters that is less comfortable and more individualized to treat them more like cattle. The could also designate other areas as “electronic free” areas or have more stringent rules.

    Point is…they are the regulators. Options are endless. Squatters may be a problem in a crowded store, but they give life to stores that are sparsely populated. Sometimes, single people go to coffee shops to see if there’s anything going on or people to meet. In that case, squatters become a free commodity for the store.

    Just some ramblings….getting caught up.

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