Ethnography of Starbucks
For my ethnography project, I decided to observe the Starbucks on Rockside Road in Independence, Ohio. My plan was to observe the subculture of Starbucks’ customers. A subculture is defined as a “structured social inequality or, more specifically, systematic inequalities between groups of people that arise as intended or unintended consequences of social processes and relationships.
” My question was twofold. Does Starbucks appeal to certain social statuses? And if so, does Starbucks serve as another example of social inequality?
The City of Independence has approximately 7,000 residents. The City is a hub for business, the majority of which are primarily based on Rockside Road. There are a variety of businesses, many of which include law firms, medical offices, and accounting firms. These busy professionals are just the type of clientele that I observed patronize Starbucks. The Starbucks on Rockside Road is located in a mid-size strip mall. The mall itself is very clean and has ample parking. Starbucks is flanked by other restaurants including Heidi’s, Zoup, Chipotle, Winking Lizard, Quiznos, and Thai Gourmet.
All of the surrounding restaurants also cater to working professionals who have limited time available for food in their hectic days. The strip mall also contains non-food businesses that complete the full-service atmosphere. The additional stores include a large Kinko’s, Verizon Wireless, AT&T, a second printing shop, and a nail salon. The Starbucks is located right next to Kinko’s. It announces its presence with a large, tripod chalkboard that subtly invites passersby to reminisce of childhood. Indeed, the chalkboard notices offer some form of comfort in an otherwise hectic life.
I first walked past the chalkboard on October 30th, a crisp Saturday in Northern Ohio. The chalkboard sign confirmed that it was in fact fall. The sign was decorated with orange and brown ribbons and offers of “Toffee Mocha” or a “Pumpkin Spiced Latte” along with a “homemade” glazed donut. As I pushed open the glass door, with the immediately recognizable green and white Starbuck’s logo, I was met with a warm breeze. The scent of chocolate and coffee beans filled the store. The sound of Wilco and grinding coffee beans invaded my ears. The store was about 500 sq. ft. in size.
It contained a long, dark green counter behind which had two smiling twenty-something “baristas” who were ready and waiting to take my order. Several Espresso machines were situated along the counter. There was also a large display case which contained what appeared to be delicious donuts, cookies, and various pastries. The store also offered “Ethos” water which informs potential purchasers that a portion of the money goes to ensure clean drinking water in less fortunate countries. Patrons could also purchase organic non-coffee drinks, coffee mugs, ground Starbucks coffee, and iTunes music downloads.
The store had an interior designed for comfort. Sixteen wooden tables filed the area. The floor was a deep cherry faux wood. There were multiple pictures on the walls, some of which depicted the different countries that Starbucks gets its coffee. The store was decorated for fall. Two sequenced pumpkins sat on the counter—one at the register and one at the pickup station. The pumpkins matched the pumpkin chalk on the outside display. The color orange was splashed around the store. There were already other patrons when I arrived. One table was occupied by a twenty-something male, typing away on his Macintosh laptop.
A young couple occupied another table. The remainder of the store contained a scattered group of males and females, all with laptops, who appeared to be working on some kind of project. I chose a table situated near the middle of the store and began gathering my observations. Over the span of two weekends (the weekends of October 23rd and October 30th) I had an opportunity to observe the type of people who purchased the Starbucks “logo. ” On both Fridays I conducted my observations between the hours of 6 and 8pm, and on each Saturday between 11am to 1pm.
I found that the majority of the clientele appeared to be middle or upper class individuals. It became apparent that Starbucks appealed to people of a certain socioeconomic status through their thoughtful use of products, language, decor, and location. Socioeconomic status (SES) is defined as “an individual’s position in a stratified social order,” meaning upper middle, or lower class. SES is primarily determined by income. The remainder of this paper will look at the different ways that Starbucks caters to the more privileged.
First, Starbucks products are clearly designed for those with a disposable income. Realistically, who would spend almost three dollars for a small cup of coffee when you can get a jumbo coffee for . 99 cents at a gas station? One reason could be quality. Starbucks claims to use high-quality whole bean coffee and sells them in a traditionally European style. But the products are not limited to coffee. Starbucks also offered a full array of organic drinks, socially conscious products, outrageously priced coffee mugs—some of which are plastic versions that prominently display their logo, and music downloads.
There were two available downloads that I observed. One was a new release by a famous artist. The other was a new release by an “undiscovered” new group. Similar to the music, my observations revealed that the Starbucks patrons primarily fit into two categories. The first were businessmen and women, who entered in suits with cellphones in hand, and hastily ordered a latte before running out the door. The second were twenty-something’s who ordered a drink and settled in to work on their laptops.
These observations suggest that primarily busy, preoccupied people only have time to grab a cup of coffee and get back to work, and since Starbucks offers quick quality, it’s the store of choice. Second, Starbucks has a language reminiscent of an Italian coffee shop. Instead of small, medium, or large, Starbucks uses “tall” for small, “grande” for medium, and “venti” for large sizes. This variation in language may indicate that in order to buy Starbucks coffee, you must have a basic knowledge of foreign languages which could reflect one’s educational attainment.
The change in language may add an air of sophistication to their products as well. Instead of ordering a large coffee, someone could order a “venti carmel macchiato. ” The language barrier at Starbucks may reflect a culture that only certain people with a certain educational level are able to recognize and adjust accordingly. This would apply to the middle and upper classes which are typically associated with higher educational levels and which could indicate a more cultured person. Third, Starbucks uses its decor to appeal to people with a higher socioeconomic status.
What is Starbucks trying to sell besides coffee? An experience. The atmosphere of Starbucks is warm and enticing. The store uses mainly earth-tone colors to give the customer a sense of comfort. The lighting is dim and sets a mood for relaxation and is reminiscent of a library at night. The lighting is designed to highlight certain products in the same way that an expensive restaurant showcases its food. The decor also contained a worldly feel. The artwork was meant to evoke an exotic getaway. The store was exceptionally clean and the “baristas” were friendly.
Through its decor, Starbucks is trying to sell an experience where customers enter a sophisticated yet understated store to purchase products that they would have had to travel the globe to obtain. This experience is indicative of the values and lifestyles commonly associated with the middle and upper class; education and travel. Fourth, Starbucks chooses its store locations as a means of attracting a certain type of clientele. According to David Firestone, director or real estate for Starbucks, there are two ground rules the company uses when deciding on locations: one, always open near an upscale nchor, two, there’s no such thing as too many coffee franchises if pedestrian levels are high enough.
Through Starbucks. com website store locator, the search for Starbucks in downtown Cleveland showed over twenty locations in the area, while a search in the less-affluent East Cleveland area found no store locations. This stratified market may suggest that Starbucks chooses locations in areas that would predominantly draw customers from middle and upper classes. Also, for more technology savvy customers, Starbucks designed an iPhone app that avigates the nearest Starbucks for any destination the customer is at, around the world. Through a combination of selective store placement and easy access, Starbucks makes its stores accessible to some, but not to all. In conclusion I’ve found that Starbucks tries to sell its idea of “cool” to the middle and upper classes through its sleek products, unique language, smooth decor, and specific store locations. Since Starbucks makes a great effort to appeal to people of higher socioeconomic statuses, the subculture of the store’s customers follows suit.
The subculture’s distinct cultural values and behavioral patterns are those associated with “high society” living, like wealth, education, and privilege. So, it appears that Starbucks serves as yet another chain of social inequality in the world of commercial business through its specific attention to a target audience that consists heavily of wealth, power, and prestige. This ethnography helped me to better understand that certain marketing strategies appeal to certain subcultures, which relay back to specific socioeconomic statuses. And in a world run by money, status is everything.