Thursday, March 19, 2015

Signifierbucks

A certain coffee company has been in the news lately for encouraging discussions about race between baristas and customers. While this has inspired some thoughtful and interesting articles - see especially those by Conor Friedersdorf and Tressie McMillan Cottom - I've been reluctant to join the conversation, essentially because I keep coming back to the sense that this is a brilliant ad campaign. What could be wiser for a company that sells spaces where you can surf the internet than to launch a thousand think-pieces with its name and perhaps logo throughout?

But the story is interesting. For a conversation that was meant to be about race, it's quickly become one about class. About the labor baristas already must provide, and now there's this, but also - less obviously - about the class of the chain's typical customer. The 'bucks customer is thus - much like "middle-class" - an archetype that can mean just about anything. The old cliché - from long before McDonalds had started serving kale - was that lattes were for the rich. This still gets repeated - Ijeoma Oluo refers to the chain's customers as "people privileged enough to spend $5 a day on their coffee." Elsewhere one finds the implication that the $5 is a splurge for poor people. Chain coffee as fast food and all that. Because... clearly you don't need to be rich to sometimes spend $5 on breakfast, and with debt an option, doing so daily is even a possibility. Rich people are, by this estimation, either thriftily making their coffee at home or super-splurging on single-origin and third-wave made by hipsters who've been trained in the Barista Arts in Sydney or wherever. So perhaps the customers somewhere in the middle - the whole "basic" thing? Rich enough to spare the $5, but not upscale enough to make their way to Williamsburg, or to know that it's cool to avoid - rather than seek out - brands?

2 comments:

Flavia said...

Yeah, agreed. First as someone who grew up in Seattle, and was drinking lattes in 1991 or 1992 (in a place and time when, admittedly, they were about $1.25)--so I haven't regarded Starbucks as particularly "upscale" for decades.

But the more relevant data point is probably this: when I lived in central Harlem (2003-2006) I can tell you that the 125th street & Lenox Ave Starbucks was MOBBED. Starbucks has been in all kinds of neighborhoods for a long time.

(Didn't someone write a book about this, maybe 5 years ago? I think a prof at Temple? I know he looked at Starbuckses in poorer neighborhoods...)

Phoebe said...

I Googled to see about this book, and found some stuff about how a bunch of Starbuckses closed in low-income areas. Which means... they aren't only ever found in posh ones.

In Princeton, the Starbucks vs Small World (hipster as much as anything here is) divide might be a town-gown one. It's definitely more upscale to go to the latter, but the prices might be higher at the former. (There's a third coffee shop too posh to have proper seating, but this is a funny town.)