The unchecked rhetorical agression of the anti-Starbucks et al. crowd

This is probably going to make me sound like David Horowitz or something but my blood couldn’t help boiling a bit as I was reading the tripe over at

Now, Delocater is some art-project-cum-anti-Starbucks website originating from some folks at San Francisco Art Institute (disclaimer: my alma mater, though I didn’t actually graduate). I guess it just went live over the last week or so, has been featured in Boing Boing, listed at Blogdex, got net folks all excited, et al, ad nauseum.

Anyway, this is more artist statement than art project (the photos of their show at the campus gallery certainly don’t inspire), which is usually never a good thing. And what a doozy of a statement it is.

Original it ain’t though. Basically, via the homogenized 10,000 worldwide stores of Starbucks, the individualism, independent thinking, and even democracy embodied by your local non-corporate cafe, is under attack. Change the retail environment to books and the bad guy to Borders and the argument remains the same. Even, as Adam Greenfield pointed out a few months ago, change the wares to furniture and the evil corporation to Ikea, those anti-WTO types sing the same rhetorical song of “assault,” “attack,” and “unchecked agression.” Big huge stores or in the case of Starbucks, many small ones, generally all with the same look and feel, staffed by workers who have received more than a modicum of training and at least act if not believe that the customer is king, is somehow the root of all that’s evil about capitalist society these days.

The standardization of this spatial, social, and physical experience [of Starbucks’ stores] is hostile to the historical culture of the café and is dangerous, ultimately, to democratic principles.

That’s from the Delocater about page. Yeah, right. But the part that bugged me particularly was this bit:

Social interaction is even considered. All employees receive the exact same training for product handling, customer service, and store management, creating a cog-like work force that can be placed anywhere within the system of stores. The regulation of employees and store architecture both set a precedent for customer behavior, all unvarying, compliance-driven, and ultimately, non-social. [my emphasis]

All employees receive the exact same training…. It’s about fucking time! It actually sounds a lot like Japan, and while the manual-abiding “cog-like workforce” of Japan can be rightfully derided as a bit sterile, cold, and lacking in creativity, when it comes to retail, I’ll take it any day of the week over the laissez faire attitude that seems to pervade much of American retail. And let’s face it, American retail has by and large the worst customer service of any developed country on the planet. It sucks. You’ve got a few well-touted shining examples like Nordstroms and such, but the vast majority of companies, large or small, seem to have little regard for properly training their employees, for instilling the value (and profitability, I might add) of good customer service, and in the end, for the customers themselves. Those holy independent cafes, belying their folksy Mom and Pop exterior, seem to have never even heard of customer service.

So, forgive me if I prefer the khaki-panted, efficient, and somewhat perfunctory service I get from your average Starbucks worker to the I-did-just-roll-out-of-bed, I’m going to make your latte while I talk to my co-worker about her date last night, and of course I’m going to smirk when you don’t drop your small change into the jar with the obnoxious TIP JAR scrawled over it service from your average Something Java independent cafe worker.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind the piercings or the tats or the pasta-rasta hair or the “Fist Me” t-shirts or the lavender triangle pins or whatever other accoutrement these folks feel might be necessary to proclaim their allegiance to independent-dom, but if they feel that these stylings or the cozy environs of their non-corporate establishment somehow give them a free pass to opt out of respecting me the customer, the person who’s ultimately paying their wage, then they shouldn’t expect me to be crying after they get quashed by those big bad corporate giants.

Obviously the brush is thick with tar here, certainly in San Francisco where I spent 14 years there are plenty of independent exceptions to the above, and indeed I rarely ever went to Starbucks. Actually my preferred shop of choice was Peets, I always kind of assumed they were independent, you know having started in Berkeley in the 60’s and all that, but I guess I was wrong, I mean if you feel like you’ve got a good thing going and you want to expand your business and customers come and soon you’ve got stores thriving all over the Bay Area, then not only are you not “independent” anymore, you’re evil. Who knew that all those years I was patronizing not a coffee and tea establishment but a PARIAH! says that “Cafés are vital social outposts that have historically provided subjective, social, local, and at times, irrational interaction, inspiration, and nourishment to artists, hipsters, musicians, activists, intellectuals, radicals, and others alike.” Alright, if that’s your target audience, go for it. But what about the folks who’d rather buy decent coffee beans rather than Folgers? Folks who want decent coffee and fairly decent prices. Or the folks who would rather have a business coffee chat with some Cesaria Evora piped in overhead instead of Monster Magnet? Folks who’d like to sit on proper sturdy furniture not found at the sidewalk sale down the street? You know, customers? Where do they go? Seems like they go somewhere else. And it seems like Starbucks and Peets et al. are catering to them, and more importantly, respecting them. That doesn’t seem like unchecked agression or an assault to me. Seems like business to me.

UPDATE (April 8, 2005): Mark Hegge of vudeja has added his thoughts.