Coffeenomics

By MIKE MILIARD  |  December 11, 2009

The chain's rabbit-like replication was striking enough early on. Back in 1998, the Onion ran a news item (dateline: Cambridge) that reported how "Starbucks, the nation's largest coffee-shop chain, continued its rapid expansion Tuesday, opening its newest location in the men's room of an existing Starbucks." But the proliferation reached a feverish crescendo between 2003 and 2007, when an average of two thousand outlets opened per year — "a new Starbucks every five hours each day for half a decade," Simon writes.

That explosive growth coincided neatly, he argues, with a fundamental transformation of post-Reagan American culture: "the near wholesale replacement of civic society by a rapacious consumer society." More than ever, Simon writes, we were living in an era where buying stuff offered "an expression of longing, a source of entertainment, a strategy for mood management, and a form of symbolic communication about class and social standing."

Starbucks was all too happy to try to fulfill those aspirational desires. Simon correctly pegs that frothy coffee as an "affordable luxury," and quotes one regular who described the place thusly: "successful people go there."

Meanwhile, he writes, there were more fundamental changes afoot in how Americans lived and work:

The go-go lifestyles of stock analysts, drug company reps, and suburban moms translated into chronic sleep deprivation and an ever-present need for sugary, caffeine-laced pick-me-ups and a place to go between business meetings, sales calls, and errands. With more people traveling, working from home, and telecommuting, fewer people had offices, but they, too, needed a clean and predictable place to meet and talk. At the same time, affordable laptops and the Internet made it easy for chemistry students, short-story writers, and middle managers to take their work with them, wherever they went, including the coffee shop.

Again, Starbucks was there — everywhere — to fill those needs.

Image vs. reality
Simon's book chronicles the wax and wane of this "moment," while exploring the gap between what he says the coffee chain promises the consumer — authenticity, community, status, empathy with Third World farmers — and what it delivers.

"[B]y carrying a Starbucks white cup encased in a brown java jacket and speaking the company's made-up Italianesque lingua franca," Simon writes, "customers identified themselves as belonging to, and got the value of membership in, a group of successful people with hip, urbane tastes; an understanding of the finer things in life and concern about the planet, the less fortunate, and the global order."

Sort of. But not really. Just as buying a $4 Caffè Mocha doesn't make you more worldly, patronizing Starbucks doesn't necessarily mean you care more about the world.

Take the chain's much-ballyhooed commitment to Fair Trade. Yes, Starbucks serves sustainably grown coffee that was purchased at remunerative, responsible prices. And, yes, its sheer size makes it the world's biggest buyer of Fair Trade beans. But that's still only six percent of the coffee it serves. Other smaller coffee sellers (see globalexchange.org) are 100 percent Fair Trade.

"Lots of people want Fair Trade, and what we get is this murky, unclear version," says Simon. "What we get, really often, is an illusion of what we really want."

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