Complaints About Starbucks' Uncomfortable Seating Are Deeper Than They Seem

Earlier this month, a conversation popped up on Reddit's Starbucks Subreddit complaining about the quality of the chairs available in Starbucks stores. It may be easy to chalk up Redditors complaining as just that, but the conversation did lead to some interesting insight into the direction the company is moving and how it views its place in society. Like many other companies, Starbucks regularly rolls out new designs for its stores. 

Customers have noticed a trend in these remodels which they suggest is an indication that Starbucks is attempting to reduce the amount of time customers spend in the store. It's not an entirely new concept, and from a purely financial perspective, it makes some sense. After all, the quicker your customer turnover rate is the more product you are selling. If someone buys a cheap black coffee and sits in a booth for the next six hours, that could be perceived as being unprofitable. 

However, with the coffee chain's new emphasis on Starbucks drive-thrus and grab-n-go coffee — including a few pickup-only Starbucks locations – it's not entirely clear how someone sitting in the store negatively impacts these types of sales since those customers never planned on staying in the first place. In the top comment on the Subreddit thread, one customer lamented that over the past few years, the Starbucks' lobby atmosphere has changed, culminating in "blocking of outlets, closing bathrooms, uncomfortable furniture, not allowing seasonal decorations." The commenter goes on to say, "I think they are moving away from The Third Place model."

The decline of Starbucks' physical Third Place

The idea of Third Places was first introduced in 1989 by the sociologist Ray Oldenburg. The First Place is home and the Second Place is work. Third Places are community builders since they're the places we go to hang out. Coffee shops have been an excellent example of this concept for many years, and former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz – inspired by a visit to Italy's cafés — heralded his coffee company as the quintessential Third Place. He strove to make Starbucks a central place where people could gather.

Starbucks' chief operating officer and North American group president, John Culver, has phrased the shift away from this model as an evolution of the idea of Third Places, which he says emphasizes "delivering experiential convenience" over physical communal space. Starbucks' insight into this shift is credited to the increased use of its mobile app, which allows customers to place their orders ahead of time, effectively reducing the time spent in-store to an absolute minimum. Love it or hate it, the trend away from physical space is more than mere speculation.

As our lives become increasingly virtual and separate, we might expect other businesses to follow suit. The situation is framed in a way that portrays customers as wanting less communal space but, as the unhappy Reddit thread seems to indicate, it appears that this is a misread. It begs the question: Is it a genuine misunderstanding or a willful misrepresentation? Whatever the answer, Americans will have to look elsewhere for a sense of community moving forward.