When it sucks that they give you what you want.
When I chose to go to the Bakoel Koffie cafe in Jakarta instead of the Starbucks right down the street I made a conscious decision to avoid the big multi-national, mono-culturizing chain that is rapidly taking over entire cities all over Asia. Starbuckses are going up across the street from Starbuckses here, and it is not uncommon to see multiples of them in a single glance down the street. Everywhere you go, there they are. But in the end I didn’t feel smug and righteous about my decision, as I assumed I would; I felt ripped off.
I ordered an Americano at Bakoel Koffie, an impressive cafe decked out in colonial decor in the heart of Jakarta, and began scanning the scene. The place was lively, full of smokers, students, and young couples on dates. As an afterthought I called over the counter and requested a little milk to be poured into my coffee. The girl behind the counter refused outright. I looked up at her in surprise.
“Americano is black, no milk,” she lectured me sternly.
“But they give me as much milk as I want in my Americano at Starbucks,” I replied, feeling a little silly for making the comparison, but for the previous three days I walked right past this cafe on my way to work at the Starbucks down the street.
While I didn’t know what it would hurt to add a little milk to my coffee I wasn’t going to kick and scream about it. I then glanced at my receipt. Something didn’t seem right. The menu said the coffee was 23,000 Rupiah, but the receipt said 28,000. Tax was added onto the total, which isn’t abnormal in Indonesia, but a mandatory service fee was also tacked on.
I questioned the girl about it. Her level of interest in my plea hardly produced a shrug.
“But the price on the menu is the one I pay at Starbucks. They never sneak in a service fee and they include the tax.”
Then my coffee arrived. It was in a diminutive sized cup. For the exact same price I could have gotten three times as much coffee at Starbucks.
As for the quality of the coffee? Mediocre, no better than at the dreaded chain.
My “but at Starbucks” comparisons were getting annoying at this point, but this wasn’t about me and one insignificant trip to a local coffee house rather than a multinational competitor, it was about a consumer experience which millions all over Asia are having daily which is shaping the very appearance of the region’s cities and impacting the culture. It was about how a single company has become a regular part of a huge portion of the world’s daily routine in a matter of just a few years.
What bothered me was that there is a reason for Starbucks’ success, and it isn’t just because of a lack of competition or because people are bedazzled by the logo of a big international brand. Starbucks, and few other chains like them, have figured out what it is that people really want.
People don’t go to Starbucks for the coffee, they go for a chair to sit down in, air conditioning, electrical outlets, toilets, and the comfort of an anonymous social space. Starbucks offers a place where people here can meet with their friends outside of the home, go on dates and not be spied on by their parents, sit alone away from the pressures of family and work, read books, or sit on their personal electronic devices for as long as they please. Actually buying something from the other side of the counter is just a ticket to enter.
Starbucks is successful because they give their customers what they want in exchange for future allegiance — even if the requests are ridiculous or seemingly uneconomical. So I can get as much frothy milk in my Americano as I want and I even once watched as some Chinese guy in a Starbucks in China ordered a latte without milk — and actually got it. Although they don’t necessarily advertise this fact, customers can invent their own drinks in Starbucks. If you tell that person on the other side of the counter to make you something they are bound by company policy to make it. There are no questions asked, they don’t disagree with you or put up an objection because they know that if they comply you will be back tomorrow, and this is what business is all about.
Have you ever seen an angry customer in Starbucks?
I hate to say it, but after the few moments that it took me to drink that crappy, teeny, overpriced Americano that the girl refused to add even a drop of milk to at the Bakeol Koffie cafe in Jakarta, I wish I’d just walked the three blocks down the street to Starbucks. The following day I did just that.
I hated the fact that I got what I wanted there — a comfortable seat, a table, an electrical outlet, a toilet, and a colossal drink made just how I wanted it. I hated the fact that the bastards made me happy. I hated that the next time when I’m in some random city looking for a cup of coffee and a place to work and I see a Starbucks on my right and a local cafe on my left that I will probably go where I know I can get what I want quickly, easily, and probably more cheaply. At the other cafe, who knows?
To chose an inferior alternative out of principle or pride is silly.
Local cafes could operate on the same principles as Starbucks but they seldom do. They would often rather grub pennies today rather than have a stream of business that could last for years. I’ve never understood this approach.
It’s perhaps a little contradictory when we consider that these mono-cultural, standardized chains like Starbucks actually find their success by being adaptable. Where else can you walk into a cafe and invent your own drink or get a latte without milk?
Starbucks takes our money because they’ve figured out who we are and what we want. When they give me that extra mug of milk or fill up my half finished cup of coffee or let me sit in there all day long using up an entire section of their cafe as an office they are allowing me to game the system . . . and they do so with a smile. They know the house always wins in the end.