Evolution Shift
A Future Look at Today
November 27th, 2006

Starbucks, the New Coffee Culture, and Why it Reflects Our Changing World

In the post below, we looked at reasons why coffee and caffeine might have become the ‘drug’ of the current decade.  In our ‘always on’ culture, the need for a stimulating pick me up is clear.  I would now like to explore the other aspects of this new coffee culture, as it is the manifestation of a number of social trends and cultural dynamics that are fundamentally changing our society.

Starbucks [for this post I will use them, the biggest brand, as the representation of all the new wave of coffee houses] is often thought to be brilliant because they persuaded tens of millions of people to spend $4 for what had been a $1 product.  I personally have always thought that the other brilliant thing they did was to create unlimited choice in a category that hardly had any choice.  What this means is that everyone, no matter how conformist or bland their daily life may be, can, for a couple of minutes, live in their own uniqueness.  “I’ll have a double decaf soy cappuccino”, or “I’ll have a venti skim vanilla latte, no foam”  In that moment, they have carved out their identity.  Do they really need a decaf soy cappuccino?  Of course not. But practically unlimited choice has allowed everyone to identify themselves by the small choices they make everyday.  Self definition in small ways allows us all to think we are living large in the landscape of free will.

In the last 30 years we have gone from a culture of alienation to one of ultimate choice.  There is no area of our lives where we do not have an unbelievably greater choice that we did 10, 20 or thirty years ago.  Think about any area of popular culture; music, television channels, ways to watch video, books, video games, restaurants.  Think about the super drug stores or super markets.  How many types of salsa or vinaigrettes or cold medicines are there now versus 1980?  I asked my researcher, a math graduate student to compute the numbers of possible choices available to the customer at the average Starbucks.  The most referenced number is around 21,000, made based upon popular choices.  His research, factoring in all the different types of milk, sizes, kinds of drinks, flavors, and specials, yielded 189,520 permutations.  Backing down to the more classic drinks and standard drink extras, he came up with a number closer to 35,000.  Now compare that to walking into a coffee shop or even a coffee house 20 years ago.  Starbucks therefore, is one of the most prominent cultural examples of providing people with an opportunity to create their identity by providing practically unlimited choice.

In the last 25 years, a lot of social and cultural institutions have been dismantled, disintermediated or have just faded away as we have moved from an Industrial Age society to an Information Age society.  The life long relationship of company and employee that the post WWII generation experienced is no longer.  Much has already been written about the U.S. becoming a nation of free agents. Technology has allowed us to work from home, or anywhere. This means that for a lot of us, the social hub of the office is no longer.   Private dining clubs have declined in numbers as the number and variety of restaurants have increased. The traditional nuclear family and all the social institutions flowing from it are no longer the norm. The speeded up Information Age and the always on culture it has now spawned has no room for the leisurely three martini lunch, let alone the single glass of wine lunch.  All of this has, to some degree been addressed by the explosion of Starbucks and Starbucks-like coffee houses.

When we need to get out of the house because we have been working there all day, we go to Starbucks and continue to work there.  When we want to meet someone for a business meeting and we don’t want them to come to our home, we choose to meet at Starbucks.  When we need a little bit of a sense of community, we go to our local coffee house, where they know us and start preparing our ‘venti skim latte, no foam’ as soon as they see us.  When we want to have a tentative social meeting, such as meeting someone we have met on an on-line dating site, we meet at the coffee house.  When the speed of change gets to us, or something major changes in our lives, or we need to take a step out of the ‘always on’ rat race for a pause or a temporary escape, we go to Starbucks.  When we feel isolated, depressed or are suffering from ‘cabin fever’, we go to the 21st version of what Hemingway called ‘a clean, well lit place’ — Starbucks, where all is known, familiar, safe, tasty and the product is stimulating to our hearts and minds.

So the modern day coffee house, most popularized by Starbucks is really both a manifestation of many of the changes that have occurred in our society and an amplification of them.  During the next decade they will continue to flourish as they meet the needs of a society where the speed of change is only accelerating and the need for a predictable place to have a stimulating pick me up will only increase. [Thanks once again to ace researcher Ben Meier.]                                



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